Many thanks to Ross Cherrington Senior Farm Advisor for the West Country Rivers Trust who agreed to write this short article highlighting the issues facing our West Country Rivers.
Recently both Paul Whitehouse’s programme “Our Troubled Rivers” and “Countryfile” have spent a lot of time focusing on the problems with nutrients and sediment entering the River Wye concentrating on the issues of intensive chicken farming within the catchment. Interestingly new intensive chicken farms have strict planning and environmental rules called the Intensive Pig and Poultry permits run under the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive IPPC. These plans are where it seems to be failing and should also include a manure management plan and be inspected every 3 years
It’s a shame that Our troubled rivers didn’t have more time to include the filmed Tamar segments, with interviews with an intensive dairy farmer, citizen scientists involved with the Sapputo Issues and a River keeper. I am sure the BBC could have had a complete programme on the Tamar instead of concentrating on a certain person of Scottish descent and his beavers. This is because in Devon and Cornwall our problems are not poultry or pig based but cattle and sediment. Muck and Mud. Too many dairy farms do not have enough slurry storage, or it’s in poor condition, and leaky. I still come across dairy farms in my job with the Westcountry Rivers Trust with No slurry storage just an old 3 stage settlement system with a dodgy pump.
There could be an easy way to service these new stores based on milk price, and tax breaks. The dairy company could offer a guaranteed 2p/litre more than base price for those farms with 5 months Silage Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil (SSAFO) regs compliant stores, with incremental payments up to that 2p limit for those getting there. It doesn’t make sense to me that its easier to get a tax break buying a new tractor but not for a new slurry store. The £3million slurry investment scheme has apparently had 8000 applicants for grants to construct a covered 6 month capacity store which if the average grant is £100,000 only allows for 30 projects.
Keen local angler Tony Watkin’s joined with protesters in Barnstaple to raise awareness regarding the plight of UK rivers and the horrendous discharging of sewage by water companies. I publicised this protest on North Devon Angling News and I wondered how many anglers would make the effort to attend. I personally tend to try and raise awareness via my writing using reasoned argument and feel slightly ill at ease with protest groups. The state of our rivers and the decline in Wildlife and nature across the world indicates that reasoned and rationale debate is not working. Frustration at the failings of politicians to address the system leads to ever stronger protests. It is time for all of us with a passion for nature to work together in a common cause forcing those who have the power to act now. It is time to re-evaluate how we measure progress and move away from GDP to appreciating how nature and the Environment is key to our survival as a species.
Tony Watkins reports –
Ask yourself this question would you say that almost 6 Million hours of dumping sewage into rivers on 775,704 separate occasions over just 2 years might qualify as ‘Exceptional’?Or the fact that South West Water was branded the Worst Polluters in the UK by ofwat Dec 2022. Yesterday local Catch n Release Salmon Fisherman Tony Watkins himself campaigning here https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/627440
Joined a peaceful group of over 170 protesters in Barnstaple yesterday to protest against Sewage, joined by groups The Baggy Blue tits part of the International Swimming group The Bluetit Chill Swimmers, Surfers Against Sewage, Plastic Free Devon, Xtinction Rebellion, marched from Castle Green to present a (mock)blue plaque to local MP offices Selaine Saxby (see pics).The peaceful march continued up the High Street with a joyous lively samba band to Green Lanes where various speeches were given by the groups in highlighting the Sewage Crime upon us.
The rivers are the arteries of the land and anglers and other groups are dismayed at the apparent lack of investment in protecting this vital part of the environment. Those with a passion for clean rivers are gathering this Saturday in Barnstaple at Castle Green to raise awareness of this issue.
A company that polluted nearly 5km of the River Mole, the principal tributary of the River Taw, in Devon has paid £18,000 in damages to local angling clubs and fishery owners following a legal claim. In July 2019 liquid anaerobic digestate deposited by agricultural contractors AJ Sing and Sons Ltd on fields north of South Molton entered the river, causing what was described by one Environment Agency officer as the worst fish kill they had seen in 30 years. An estimated 15,600 fish died as result of the pollution, including juvenile salmon, adult brown trout, sea trout and juvenile brown trout.
Represented by Fish Legal, the anglers’ damages claim followed a criminal prosecution brought by the Environment Agency (EA) where the company and an employee were fined a total of just £2,667 at Exeter Magistrates Court on 28 July 2021.
The anglers are donating all of the damages to help fund projects run by the Westcountry Rivers Trust (WRT) in co-ordination with River Taw Fisheries & Conservation Association (RTFS) that improve and restore the habitat and spawning potential of the River Mole, giving fish populations the best chance of recovery.
Justin Neal, Fish Legal Solicitor, said: “The digestate was being spread at a time when there was rain and the leaking pipe was left for days, meaning that this highly damaging waste washed into what was a pristine river habitat, causing a total wipe-out of fish for a considerable distance.”
He added: “Whilst we are pleased that the EA prosecuted those responsible for pollution offences, we are finding in other cases across England and Wales that the spreading of digestate and fertiliser is not properly controlled with full oversight by regulators. Nevertheless, we hope that the money which was paid to our angler members can now be put to good use to assist the recovery of the catchment.”
Alex Gibson, who was Chair of RTFCA at the time of the pollution incident and is also a claimant said: “It is not just anglers fishing below the polluted stretch, but all those who enjoy the river and its ecology that have felt the devastating effect of this pollution incident and unfortunately will continue to do so into the future. Our collective claim enables us to provide £18,000 to the WRT for river improvement work on the Mole.
He added: “We hope the fact that anglers on the river have come together to take legal action directly against these polluters will send a message to others in the catchment that they need to take care when dealing with highly toxic substances or pay the consequences.”
Statement from Alex Gibson
“We all remember too well the Mole pollution incident at the end of July 2019. Anaerobic digestate being spread as a fertiliser on fields north of South Molton by Alun Sing, a farmer and contractor, was allowed into the River Mole in large quantities.
The EA estimated that about 15k fish were killed over a 5km stretch. That made it an EA Category 1 incident. Adult sea trout, adult brown trout, juvenile salmon and juvenile brown trout, some of which would have become sea trout, were killed. Also killed were stone loach, bullhead and minnows. In short it was an ecological disaster.
The EA’s prosecution was successful and we then mounted a private action using the services of Fish Legal. This took the form of 5 RTFCA members of Fish Legal acting as claimants. I am pleased to say that our claim has now been successfully settled. The £18k received is being paid by the 5 claimants to WRT for river improvement work on the Mole.
Here are a few conclusions of my own.
Farmers should not be allowed to get away with polluting our rivers. Category 1 and where possible Category 2 incidents must be prosecuted by the EA.
Offers of Enforcement Undertakings should be declined as RTFCA did in this case. By offering money direct to affected parties the polluter seeks to avoid prosecution. If farmers are not prosecuted there is no deterrent effect to bad practice.
Private actions can be successfully brought, but only by concerted action using a specialist service, namely Fish Legal. It was disappointing that only 5 Fish Legal members could be found among RTFCA riparian owners. More members will be encouraged to join Fish Legal and I would make the point more generally for all owners of fisheries elsewhere.
As RTFCA has always been aware, anaerobic digesters, of which we have 3 on our river system, and the spreading of digestate from them are a continuing threat to our river and need to be properly regulated and overseen by the EA.
This incident happened during my chairmanship and has reached its conclusion during Andy Gray’s. I hope Andy never has to face anything similar. The RTFCA Committee asked me to continue taking responsibility until the file could be closed. Thankfully we have now reached that stage.
Thanks are due to the other claimants and to the RTFCA Committee, both of which groups, I would suggest, have made the right decisions during this long, drawn-out process.
The success of our private claim though is really down to the excellent work done by Fish Legal and in particular by Justin Neal. For many reasons this was never going to be a straightforward case. I have enjoyed working with Justin, but we will both be happy to close the file.”
Fish Legal is a not-for-profit organisation of dedicated lawyers who use the law on behalf of anglers to fight polluters and others who damage and threaten the water environment. Fish Legal secures compensation for its members to help restore polluted waters and challenges Government and regulators when they fail to protect fisheries.
Fish Legal represented five fisheries on the Mole and the River Taw including the Barle Fishing Club, the Wampford Syndicate and three riparian owners.
The River Mole sub-catchment is a highly important spawning and nursery area for salmon in the Taw catchment. The impact on juvenile salmon from this incident will potentially result in some reduction to the number of adult salmon returning to the River Mole in 2021, 2022 and 2023 migration periods.
The dead fish included 1,127 adult brown trout, 14 adult sea trout, 1,222 brown trout fry, 328 brown trout parr, 1,155 salmon fry and 315 salmon parr
Fish Legal took legal action on behalf of a member club on the River Leadon in a similar incident in 2016 when an employee instructed to fertilise one of the orchards at a farm near Dymock in Gloucestershire failed to check the valves before turning on the irrigation system designed to take the digestate fertiliser from a lagoon to the orchard. https://fishlegal.net/case-studies/river-leadon/
As Christmas approaches many will be stocking up on culinary delights. I am joining with Pete Tyjas of Fly Culture magazine to raise awareness of the environmental disaster that is salmon farming. Please consider the facts and do not endorse the industry by buying farmed salmon. More information on salmon farming can be found on the Wildfish website see link. https://wildfish.org/weekly-sea-lice-statistics/?mc_cid=281e974a7d&mc_eid=ebe0241b5b
The River Taw Fisheries & Conservation Association are urging all anglers to support the petitions on the parliament UK website for adequate funding of the Environment Agency.
Petition to increase powers and funding of the Environment Agency
The environment agency is underfunded and underpowered. A great example happened to our very own Mole recently where despite a record fish kill the fine was a paltry £2,000.
This petition asks the government to give more funding to the Environment Agency and to free it from overly business-friendly Government codes and guidance, so it can pursue and achieve its principal statutory objective to protect and enhance English rivers.
The petition has 2 days left to run and needs support, please click on the link below
The Angling Trust have been working hard to influence MPs to vote against the dumping of sewage into our rivers.
A personal view :-
The inadequate sewerage systems are a legacy of years of underfunding by water companies with much of the infrastructure outdated and unable to cope with the extent of development across the country. This is a complex issue and it is easy to blame the politicians and water companies in truth we all need to accept that it is us who produce the product and it is all of us who must foot the bill. The privatisation of the water companies in the 1980’s allowed the government to dodge the issues along with the successive governments that have followed. The need for housing in an ever growing world has exceeded the capacity of a sewerage system built for a much smaller population. The challenges of climate change and severe weather events add additional urgency to the situation. Anglers at the waters edge are well aware of the state of the nations rivers and have long campaigned against pollution with some success. It is essential that the wider public appreciate what is happening to the Rivers of North Devon and beyond.
Briefing from Jamie Cook of the Angling Trust
A big thank you to all those who took the time and trouble to write to their MPs on the issue of sewage discharges into our rivers and to everyone who supports the work of Angling Trust, Fish Legal and our Anglers Against Pollution Campaign.
As you may have heard, the Lords amendment to beef up the Environment Bill and force more action to tackle storm overflows was defeated in the House of Commons on Wednesday (20th October). But that’s not the end of the story.
Thanks to the many anglers and supporters who wrote to their MP, 22 Tory MPs defied their party whip and joined the Opposition in support of our campaign by voting for the Lords amendment. This will be key to us keeping the pressure on the government to act, especially if we can increase this number next time around.
You can see which MPs voted “No” to the government’s attempt to block the change here.
The Environment Bill now goes back to the House of Lords for further debate tomorrow (26th October). Discussion is taking place between campaign groups, including the Angling Trust, and members of the House of Lords around another attempt to secure action.
And Anglers Against Pollution continues to fight on other fronts. We are calling on the government to take bold action in giving new guidance to the regulator, OFWAT, to allow more investment in cleaning up our sewage systems and make water companies do more to tackle pollution. We set out the case in our recently published joint report, Time to Fix The Broken Water Sector which is gaining a lot of support and attention.
You can rest assured that we are not giving up the fight for cleaner rivers and will continue to press for meaningful action to tackle the scandal of sewage pollution. Thanks again for all you did and we will keep you informed every step of the way.
All the best, Jamie Cook, CEO – Angling Trust and Fish Legal
Download a copy of our Time to Fix the Broken Water Sector report HERE
To find out more about our Anglers Against Pollution Campaign click HERE
Fish Legal are considering legal action against those responsible for the devastating pollution incident that killed thousands of fish on the river Mole in July 2019. See full press release below:-
River Mole polluters not off the hook yet
Fish Legal is considering legal action against those responsible for polluting a 4.7 kilometre stretch of the River Mole with digestate in July 2019.
The company was fined £2,000 and an employee was fined £667 at Exeter Magistrates Court on 28 July 2021 after an estimated 15,600 fish died as result of the incident.
Fish Legal has a number of riparian and angling club members on the River Mole affected by what one Environment Agency officer has described as the worst fish kill seen in 30 years. Whole populations of salmonids, from mature adults to fry, are thought to have been wiped out by what appears to have been a careless and completely avoidable pollution of the river.
Penelope Gane, Head of Practice at Fish Legal said:
“It’s good to see that the Environment Agency prosecuted in this case. They have faced a barrage of criticism in the media recently for not taking a tough stance on polluters so when they do use their powers to punish offenders and to deter others that should be acknowledged.”
“The fine on the other hand is paltry. Anaerobic digestate is extremely toxic to aquatic life and it could take years for fish populations to fully recover from this one-off event. Whilst the Court may have stuck to the letter of the Sentencing Guidelines in deciding on the level of the fine to impose in this case, does a total of £2,667 really send out the right message about the value of our rivers?”
Alex Gibson, who owns fishing rights to about a mile of the River Taw into which the River Mole flows, said:
“It would be hard to imagine a worse pollution incident. It comes after the River Taw Fisheries & Conservation Association has both spent time and money improving access over Head Weir – the gateway to the Mole for migratory fish – and gravel washing on the Mole to increase spawning capability there. It is not just anglers fishing below the polluted stretch, but all those who enjoy the river and its ecology that have felt the devastating effect of this pollution incident and, unfortunately will continue to do so into the future.”
Fish Legal took legal action on behalf of a member club on the River Leadon in a similar incident in 2016 when an employee instructed to fertilise one of the orchards at a farm near Dymock in Gloucestershire failed to check the valves before turning on the irrigation system designed to take the digestate fertiliser from a lagoon to the orchard. Sadly, anaerobic digesters continue to represent a high-risk operation with catastrophic consequences for rivers when anything goes wrong.
Mole Pollution Incident July 2019 – EA Prosecution
In the recent prosecution brought by the Environment Agency the guilty pleas were appropriate and not unexpected. The fines however, appear derisory – £2,000 and £667 against a fish kill of around 16,400. These fines don’t reflect the severity of the incident, the damage done to our fish stocks and the ecology of the Mole. Where is the deterrent message to the farming community at a time of poor water quality in our rivers which remain under continuing threat from unsafe farming practices?
See link to EA press release below
We are pleased that the EA carried out a successful prosecution, but extremely disappointed with the final outcome.