Background to Water Friendly Farming

The extent of impacts on freshwaters, especially from pollution, is shocking.

Almost all lowland freshwater rivers, streams and ponds are degraded by diffuse pollution from farmland activities, run-off from roads, industry and urban inputs including sewage works. Worryingly, three quarters of rivers in England and Wales fail to meet even minimum legal standards set for a healthy river by the EU Water Framework Directive. Monitoring evidence from ponds shows they too have declined in quality in recent years.

In the UK we spend many millions of pounds annually on measures to mitigate this damage, including through agri-environment payments to farmers. Yet there is surprisingly little information to show whether these mitigations work, and this is money well spent. We urgently need to get evidence of what works and what doesn’t so agri-environment funding is not, literally, poured down the drain. Water Friendly Farming aims to do just that.

The objective is to find out, for the first time, how wide-scale mitigation measures need to be, to successfully provide the benefits we need:

  • clean, clear water to support fish, aquatic invertebrates, plants and other wildlife and for the benefit of us all, and
  • better flood storage to reduce the risks of flooding downstream

The project is one of the first to evaluate at the catchment scale the whole suite of land management measures that are being widely applied in lowland farmed landscapes. This includes: leaky dams to help control downstream flooding, buffer strips on river banks, settlement ponds, stream-side fencing to reduce livestock access to streams, woody debris dams, introducing soil and nutrient management techniques to reduce runoff and many others.

The project is being undertaken in a working agricultural landscape, and participation of, and feedback from, the farmers involved in the project is an integral part of the study: ensuring that the project has real-world relevance.

Baseline monitoring from the Water Friendly Farming project since 2011 has already provided important information about freshwaters at the landscape scale. Now that our practical mitigation measures have been implemented (2014 onwards), the next phase of the project is underway: monitoring the changes we see, and using the results to help refine current freshwater management approaches in farming landscapes.