Farming and forestry pollution sees hundreds of waterways downgraded 6

Farming and forestry pollution sees hundreds of waterways downgraded

Endangered species are being put at risk by pollution from farming and forestry industries, which has led to poorer quality in hundreds of Scottish waterways and dozens being rated ‘bad’ or ‘poor’.

Fertilisers, pesticides, slurry and other substances can have “severe impacts on plants and animals in rivers”, reduce drinking water quality, and pose a risk to human health, according to the Scottish Environment Agency (Sepa).

Runoff from farm and forestry activities, as well as green spaces such as parks and sports fields, is the most common threat to water quality, Sepa data shows. Chemicals such as fertilisers are used to help grow crops and grass for grazing animals. But anything not absorbed by plants can seep into groundwater and run into waterways.

Sepa told The Ferret that agricultural runoff was linked to its decisions to downgrade the statuses of 363 rivers, lochs, canals, burns, estuaries, coastal areas and groundwaters in a 2020 study.

This prompted the Scottish Greens to call for stronger regulations and the reform of agricultural subsidies to tackle pollution.

Among those with the worst water quality, according to 2022 assessments – the latest available – are the Ythan Estuary in Aberdeenshire, which flows into the North Sea. It is home to endangered Atlantic salmon and has nine special protected designations.

Farming and forestry pollution sees hundreds of waterways downgraded 7
The Ythan Estuary is currently in poor condition. Photo © Martyn Gorman (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Others rated as ‘bad’ include Loch Gelly in Fife, Carlingwark Lane Canal, which flows into Carlingwark Loch in Castle Douglas – another protected site – and Gelston Burn, which flows out of the loch towards the Solway.

Those with groundwaters rated as ‘poor’ include Montrose, Auchtermuchty, the Rhins in Galloway, and Fogo in the Scottish Borders. Polluted groundwater can threaten drinking water supplies.

A farming group called for more funding support to “tackle the climate and nature crises” while forestry bodies stressed that “every practical precaution” was taken to cut pollution.

An environmental scientist said Scotland’s freshwaters are in “much better condition” than a lot of the EU, but warned of an “increasing cocktail of pollutants entering rivers”. Sepa highlighted that Scotland’s water quality is the best on record – a result it said was owed to improvements in practices from the agricultural sector.

Dozens of waters rated ‘poor’

Sepa’s 2022 assessments of waters impacted by rural pollution show that 50 were rated as poor, and five as bad. The vast majority (219) were rated as moderate, 80 as good, and nine as high.

Sepa’s river basin data also shows that it planned to improve the quality of 280 of the 363 waters impacted. Of the 83 waters where no action was planned, 10 are currently in poor condition.

Gogar Burn (Source to Union Canal)Poor
Sauchenford Burn (Plean sewage works to Pow Burn)Poor
Murray BurnPoor
River Tyne (Source to Birns Water confluence)Poor
East Pow (d/s of Methven to R Almond Confluence)Poor
Commerton BurnPoor
Cander Water/White Corse BurnPoor
South BurnPoor
Voy BurnPoor
Cowie BurnPoor

Sepa said some waters had less stringent improvement objectives because the pressures they faced did not risk having an ecological impact, but that a fresh review was planned.

The River Tyne source to Birns Water, as well as South, Cowie and Voy burns now have actions planned to address rural pollution pressures, it added.

Scottish Greens MSP Mark Ruskell said: “Some of these findings are concerning. Improving water quality is critical for both nature recovery and our own health. Where farming is impacting on the environment there needs to be greater regulatory and subsidy reform.

“Fertiliser and slurry pollution ending up in rivers means the loss of nutrients to grow crops in the soil, which in turn is costly for farm businesses as well as our biodiversity. I recognise the important work of Sepa and others, but we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that we hit our targets and that we fully restore our rivers.”

Forestry pollution

Phosphorus, used by foresters to provide nutrients to trees, can impact upland lochs via runoff often during heavy rainfall, or when soil is disturbed by heavy machinery during felling.

Forestry pollution can also result in algae that produce toxins potentially harmful to humans, fish and other animals.

A spokesperson for Forestry and Land Scotland, which manages around a third of Scotland’s forests on behalf of the public, said: “We take every practical precaution to comply with all the legislation and guidance and work closely and in collaboration with other agencies to deliver best outcomes.”

Scottish Forestry, the government agency responsible for regulation, said environmental legislation was “the strongest lever in mitigating pollution and everyone must comply with it”. Some planting projects require environmental impact assessments.

But all projects that receive public funding from the Forestry Grant Scheme “must follow comprehensive guidance in the UK Forestry Standard, which outlines best practice on planting and managing woodlands in ways which mitigate any impacts of forestry design and operations,” said a spokesperson.

Phosphorus, used by foresters to provide nutrients to trees, can impact upland lochs via runoff often during heavy rainfall, or when soil is disturbed by heavy machinery during felling. Image credit: Francis Eatherington. Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

Pollution regulations

Nitrogen is a crucial nutrient that helps plants and crops grow, but as high concentrations are harmful to people and nature, Scotland has designated nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs) to reduce nitrate loss from agricultural land.

NVZs are areas where nitrate concentrations in water exceed, or are likely to exceed certain levels, and are subject to stricter rules around storing and applying fertiliser.

The current NVZs are Lothian and Borders, Strathmore and Fife (including Finavon in Angus), Moray, Aberdeenshire, and Lower Nithsdale and Stranraer Lowlands – both in Dumfries and Galloway.

Other regulations put controls on the use and storage of pesticides. Sepa advises storing and applying fertiliser away from waterways, water sources, and waterlogged land. The Scottish Government-funded Farming and Water Scotland cooperative also helps farmers and land managers to follow pollution laws.

“Farmers are in a unique position to help tackle the climate and nature crises as well as produce healthy sustainable food,” Kirsty Tait, director of the Farming and Countryside Commission, told The Ferret. Image: Richard-P-Long/iStock

On 14 February, the Scottish Government made £4m available to fund the storage of slurry and irrigation lagoons to help improve water quality in rural areas, which farmers and land managers can apply for as part of the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme.

However, this is the final year that support will be available for slurry storage.

Kirsty Tait, the director of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, an independent charity, said: “It is a challenging time for everyone who cares for the environment across Scotland, including farmers and crofters, as the new payment framework is worked out. 

“Farmers are in a unique position to help tackle the climate and nature crises as well as produce healthy sustainable food – and with the right support, can be a force for change.”

Scottish water quality at ‘record high’

The James Hutton Institute monitors water pollution and explores how methods like better land and soil management, and buffer zones can prevent contamination of Scotland’s rivers. It is part of a Stirling university-led research project exploring how pollution and climate change are impacting freshwater ecosystems.

Dr Eulyn Pagaling, an environmental microbiologist at the institute, said: “Comparatively, Scotland’s freshwaters are in much better condition than in many other countries, including England and Wales and much of the EU. However, that’s not to say there’s not room for improvement.”

She warned of an “increasing cocktail of pollutants entering rivers”, including pharmaceuticals, microplastics and ‘forever chemicals’, adding that climate change will pose further challenges due to changes to the way chemicals are processed in waters.

Farming and forestry pollution sees hundreds of waterways downgraded 8

Sepa said Scotland’s water quality was the best on record, with 87 per cent of the water environment rated as ‘good’ or better last year, and a record-breaking number of bathing waters rated ‘excellent’.

“The upgrade in water quality reflects improvements made through Scottish Water’s investment programme and the sustained hard work by all stakeholders to improve rural land management practices and reduce diffuse pollution,” said Nathan Critchlow-Watton, Sepa’s head of water and planning.

This Ferret story was also published in the Sunday National. Our partnerships with other media help us reach new audiences and become more sustainable as a media co-op.  Join us to read all our stories and tell us what we should investigate next.

Main image credit: eutrophication&hypoxia. Licence: CC BY 2.0 DEED

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