THE EFFECTS of the Welsh Government’s introduction of all-Wales agricultural pollution regulations are beginning to bite on small family farms.
The regulations, rammed through using a procedural ruse in the dog days of the last Parliamentary term, have caused fury and fear in equal measure among farmers’ organisations and the small and medium-sized farms that are the backbone of rural life in Wales.
Former Lib Dem leader and government minister Kirsty Williams’ failure to oppose them almost certainly cost Bill Powell the Brecon and Radnor seat on May 6.
When passing the regulations, the Welsh Government ignored its independent regulator (Natural Resources Wales). NRW did not support the need for the scheme now in force. The regulator also says the Welsh Government legislation risks making water quality worse. NRW told the Welsh Government point-blank it has neither the staff nor financial resources to enforce the new rules.
LIES, DAMNED LIES, STATISTICS
The Welsh Government claims that agricultural pollution incidents have remained at the same level for the last five years, and self-regulation has failed.
Those claims are, however, lies.
Pollution from agricultural sources has sharply declined, particularly in areas at risk of water pollution.
The largest source of water pollution in Wales is water companies – as exposed in a recent documentary which revealed they routinely pumped raw sewage into sensitive marine habitats. Domestic pollution and industrial pollution have also markedly increased.
When we checked the number of prosecutions for water pollution from agricultural sources for the last five years, only 53 were subject to any enforcement action. Only 11 of those cases ended with civil sanctions through the courts.
We established with NRW that the overwhelming majority of incidents were so minor as not to need any intervention.
Equally, NRW confirmed that the overwhelming majority of incidents requiring the regulators’ intervention were dealt with through informal resolution.
TENANT FARMERS FACE RUIN
While farmers accept that water pollution is an issue the industry must address, they point to successful self-regulation and the decline in pollution incidents involving slurry and other farm waste.
The cost to small farms of complying with the letter of the new regulations is prohibitively high, being more than the whole of Wales’ agricultural budget. The Welsh Government has made virtually no provision for the costs.
In the case of tenant farmers, those costs are potentially ruinous and will end livelihoods.
Bryan Jones, his wife Susan and his son Andrew farm at Coedyparc, Caersws, Powys; a 105 acre all grassland farm, which is home to an 85-strong closed dairy herd.
The family, who have been farming here since 1973 on a lifetime tenancy agreement, are worried that with their landlord unwilling to foot the bill for the costly capital works required to be compliant with the new regulations and the banks not lending money for works carried out on tenant farms, it will spell the end of their farming lives on the holding.
Bryan Jones said: “I’ve been milking cows my entire life, starting when I was just 12 years old and will mark my 66th year of dairy farming this year. It’s what we do as a family. It’s our life.
“We have never had a pollution incident here. NRW, through their assessment, has confirmed that there is no pollution here, but we still need to comply with these new regulations and carry out works at eye-watering costs, which will be in the region of £70,000. Who is going to pay for that?
“The landlords have refused, and the bank won’t lend us the money to carry out work on a property we don’t own.
“I’m at my wit’s end and fear that in three years, this could very well be the end of our farming life here.
“I have no objection to a polluter-pays approach, but this is going to cripple the industry if nothing is changed. The Welsh Government must consider the financial implications of these regulations on small and medium-sized farm businesses and tenant farmers as a matter of urgency.”
Susan is worried about what will happen to all those family farms that are not in a financial position to comply. She said: “Our family farms are the beating heart of our rural communities. We produce sustainable food, make enormous contributions to the rural economy, look after the environment, and provide employment.
“Losing farms and losing cattle from the area will have far-reaching consequences. The direction these policies are going is a direct threat to our way of life, the rural economy, and the safe, reliable, and sustainable food supply. We are in an impossible situation, and I’m worried about the future of our industry and the next generation of farmers, especially where tenant farmers are concerned.
“The Welsh Government must consider the social and cultural impacts on rural communities given the implications these regulations will have on young farmers, tenants, and new entrants.
“If there was evidence supporting the need for such sweeping regulations that would be something, but Natural Resources Wales’ data shows it’s not needed in more than 90% of Wales and studies from areas that already have the regulations show it’s likely to make pollution much worse,” she added.
The cattle are housed over the winter months to protect the soil and ground, which would not cope with the livestock during the wet period.
Andrew, who has been working alongside his father on the dairy farm since he was 16 years old, adds: “We take pride in our dairy herd and the outstanding animal health and welfare standards we have here. That same pride applies to the ground we farm on and the environment.
“Everything works in rhythm and we know what works for the land and the livestock. These regulations will force many to make changes to the way they farm to the detriment of the environment.”
We asked the Welsh Government about what we supposed were the unintended consequences of its decision to ram through regulations without any scrutiny.
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “The Control of Agricultural Pollution Regulations are vital in providing clear baseline standards to protect Wales’ environment from pollution which will enable the industry to demonstrate the sustainable nature of food production.”
“The new regulations apply in phases, over three-and-a-half years, providing time for farm businesses to adjust to the new requirements. Several measures replicate existing statutory provisions and standards, which many farms will already be implementing.
“During the implementation phase and beyond, the Welsh Government is providing financial assistance, advice, and guidance, including through Farming Connect. This package of support includes specific advice for tenant farmers.”
SUSTAINABILITY INCLUDES FINANCIAL SUSTAINABILITY: FUW
We noted the reference to farmers having to prove their farms could ‘demonstrate the sustainable nature of food production.
The Welsh Government’s previous consultation with the industry and its response didn’t identify food production as one of its priorities for Wales.
That same document incidentally failed to use the words ‘farmer’ or ‘farmers’ in its entire text.
We put the Welsh Government’s response to our query to the FUW.
It was unimpressed with the Welsh Government’s attitude.
An FUW spokesperson told us: “The evidence about sustainability is in the NRW data showing that the vast majority of Welsh catchment areas do not have a nitrate problem and should not be subject to these draconian regulations!
“We are continuously working to make the industry more sustainable and spent months working with NRW and others to put together a comprehensive plan that the Welsh government didn’t even respond to.
“The word ‘sustainability’ encompasses financial sustainability.
“By cutting and pasting decades-old regulations and ignoring the concerns expressed repeatedly about impacts for tenant farmers, the government is making family businesses financially unsustainable.
“That doesn’t fit into the sustainability agenda and is not a good image for Wales and the Welsh Government.”
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