Improving water quality in the UK: £11 million put towards catchment sensitive farming

An initiative aimed at reducing the impact agricultural practices have on water quality has received more applications from farmers than ever before. The Catchment Sensitive Farming project (CSF), a joint partnership between Defra, Natural England and the Environment Agency, provides grants for farmers in over 79 UK catchment areas in order to help them develop practical methods to reduce diffuse water pollution. As of the end of July 2013, the scheme has offered over £11 million grant awards and it is anticipated that even more applications for the scheme will be received.

Agriculture is arguably the greatest source of diffuse water pollution given the vast chemicals it uses; it is responsible for 60% of nitrates and 25% of phosphorus entering our waterways. Such pollutants on their own have relatively small individual effect but at a large scale, for example at a catchment scale, they can have a big impact on water quality and the wider environment. As a result, many organisations have been keen to try and limit the impacts agriculture has on water quality, and work with farmers to develop ways to undertake more sensitive practices that benefit both them and the environment.

Since 2007, the CSF project has been working in water catchments throughout England, Scotland and Wales to primarily ‘support the improvement or installation of facilities that would benefit water quality by reducing diffuse pollution from agriculture’. The project offers advice to farmers through training, workshops and events about how to manage land in ways that will reduce water diffuse pollution. This can range from simple actions such as roofing over livestock or manure storage to reduce run off, to training on soil condition and pesticide management. As part of the project, the Capital Grant scheme has become increasingly popular as it offers 50% of the funding for farm improvement works. Applications for grants are assessed on their ability to reduce diffuse pollution and other criteria surrounding whether farms have already received grants and the ‘level of engagement’ farmers have shown to the work proposed. This year has received twice the amount of applications compared to previous years.

The increase in applications is an encouraging sign that the agricultural community is becoming increasingly aware of the impact their practices have upon the environment and shows the importance that such schemes have in enabling famers to act in order to reduce these impacts. The scheme also has important ramifications for helping the UK to achieve aims of the EU Water Framework Directive, whilst the catchment focus of the scheme fits in with wider Defra calls to develop catchment based approaches to water management. However, limited funds mean that not all applications can be accepted; people will have to put on reserve waiting lists until the next round of applications open or more funds become available.

Into the future, increasing the awareness of catchment sensitive farming should become increasingly widespread for all farmers, not just those operating within high risk areas which the CSF project currently targets. This would ensure that this scheme is truly ‘catchment’ focused. However, given that grants form an essential part of the scheme and provide the motive for farmers to act upon their increased awareness, enabling more funds to be available to award to farmers is necessary. But, this may be easier said than done given the increasing amounts of money that is required and the limited funds that are available.