Earlier this month the National Farmer’s Union published a report to showcase positive work being done by farmers to safeguard the River Wye.
Positive action to improve soil quality and protect rivers is welcome, and individual efforts should be applauded, but aspects of the report are obfuscatory and misleading.
We need farmers to lead the way in cleaning up the river because the Environment Agency says that farming is responsible for over two-thirds of the phosphate pollution on the Wye. Unfortunately the NFU’s report doesn’t mention this, so the average reader might not realise that the farming sector is the river’s primary polluter. When will they acknowledge farming’s share of the pollution and take full responsibility for addressing it?
The NFU report includes six farm case studies and whilst it discloses some information about these farms, including how many cattle and sheep they keep and how many acres of arable land they farm, it’s strangely coy about one thing: the numbers of chickens and turkeys.
Three of the featured farms mention that they keep poultry, so I asked the NFU press office how many birds each kept. They wouldn’t tell me.
The NFU press officer argued that the report isn’t about numbers, it’s about “positive mitigation” of pollution. I contend that positive mitigation depends upon understanding the numbers. The problem on the Wye is a systemic one. As a key study by Professor Paul Withers and colleagues at Lancaster University has demonstrated, there is more livestock manure in the Wye catchment than the land can absorb and so the excess nutrient goes into rivers, feeding algal blooms. There are over 20 million chickens in the Wye catchment. The scientists at Lancaster recommend removing 80 per cent of the poultry manure, by reducing the overall number of chickens and by exporting the nutrients from the remaining manure out of the catchment. That’s the scale of the challenge.
Let’s take one case study in the NFU report as an example. It says that Sharon Hammond farms with her family near Builth Wells and has 1,600 ewes, some cattle and “produces over 40,000 poultry per year”. The NFU, remember, won’t tell me how many birds the Hammond farm actually stocks. Yet Wales Farmer recently published an interview with Hammond in which she says they keep 120,000 birds at any one time. So what are the NFU trying to hide? A permit for the farm also reveals that Hammond has “130,000 places designed for rearing chickens for meat production”. The birds live for around 6 weeks before being slaughtered for meat. Then after a week’s rest, the cycle starts again. So the Hammond family are likely processing around 800,000 birds a year on their farm. Quite a lot “over 40,000 per year”.
These numbers give a different picture of what farming in the Wye catchment looks like. Whilst the report is illustrated with nice photographs of trees, lush green fields, tractors, sheep and worms in the soil – it doesn’t show a single intensive poultry unit. The 20 million odd birds being factory-farmed are hidden from view. Greenwashing? It’s certainly misleading.
The NFU report says that farms are “heavily regulated, manure and soil management plans are in place”. Yet the Welsh regulator, Natural Resources Wales, recently admitted in their Core Management Plan for the River Wye that manure spreading from intensive poultry units is a problem but “other than through agricultural cross compliance, these operations are currently outside of regulatory control”. Who’s checking manure management plans are being followed? Nobody. Meanwhile the Environment Agency reports that the majority of farms breach pollution regulations. There is scarcely any enforcement action against polluters. DEFRA have instructed the agencies to take an ‘advice-led’ approach. Heavily regulated? If only.