Addressing water and soil pollution at the landscape scale

At our base on the Burrough Court Estate we have worked alongside the landowners to address issues of water and soil pollution. We started on the Pickwell Farm which is within the River Eye SSSI impact zone; the river itself being an excellent example of a semi-natural lowland river. Sediment, and the pollution it carries has an adverse effect on the SSSI, resulting in it failing to achieve favourable condition.  The major sources of nitrates are fertilisers. In England and Wales, agricultural practices account for 50-60% of nitrate entering the water environment, with the East Midlands being one of the worst performing areas.  

Impacts 

Nitrogen and other nutrients applied to farms to support the healthy growth of crops can have devastating effects on water courses and soils, as well as causing a risk to human health. 

Health and wellbeing – removing nitrates is expensive to treat with the cost of new water treatment plants costing £8m to install and £250k per year to operate. As human populations increase, and the need to intensively grow food becomes more important, this could result in higher levels of nitrate and nutrient use, which in turn will negatively impact water and soil quality, and deplete important habitats and ecosystems.  

Biodiversity loss – Nitrates increase eutrophication – the removal of oxygen from a waterbody – and this affects the ecological quality of the water and habitat changes in the wider ecosystem. Excess nutrients cause increases in growth of plants and algae which can limit the amount of sunlight and oxygen reaching aquatic life. 

Climate change – Climate change can affect nitrate dilution and loading as a result of increases in rainfall intensity, duration, location and changes in agricultural practices. For example, at Pickwell Farm we have identified increased nitrogen and nutrient loadings in watercourses immediately following storm events. More frequent storm events both in the winter and summer along with the increase in hotter summers will increase the effects of eutrophication. 

What we are doing about it 

In 2015 the Trust and the Burrough Court Estate began a collaboration with Natural England and the Environment Agency to make improvements at Pickwell Farm in relation to soil and water run off and pollution.  Soil Husbandry and Water Management Plans were developed with recommendations for creation of swales, improved field drainage systems and tracks, which were undertaken between 2015 and 2016.  

Since then there has been the creation of over 0.7ha of 12-24metre buffer strips to protect water courses to reduce the risk of transport of potential pollutants, such as sediment, nutrients (principally nitrate and phosphate) and pesticides, to watercourses. 

Prior to COVID-19 we were using the farm to train volunteers in carrying out soil and water quality testing to identify which elements of the landscape was most susceptible to storing excess nitrogen and nutrients. The aim was to create a volunteer workforce to carry out testing for farmers to enable them to recognise where pollution issues were occurring, which fields and waterbodies were the most affected, and to enable the Trust to provide advice and continuous monitoring to support a transition to more sustainable methods of land management.  

The estate are now turning their attention to the Burrough Court farm and are working with us and partners to implement swales, and other methods to reduce nitrates and nutrients from entering the water courses. There are also plans to reduce inputs through minimum tillage methods. 

What we want to do next 

Each year the farm works with its agricultural contractors and the Trust to continually reduce the amount of nitrogen and nutrients being applied to soils and to monitor the effects of actions that have been taken so far.  Whilst current practices have helped, there is more to do, with more fields being converted to habitat and small scale testing of sustainable practices.  

We want to do more to reduce the amount of nutrients being used in agriculture and aim to attract funding to formalise our existing partnerships and create a wider network of farmers and landowners so we can demonstrate different methods of managing land using sustainable practices. We are looking for funding and support so we can continue to train volunteers who will assess and monitor nutrient levels for farmers so we can use the results to highlight the issues to policy makers and decision makers (e.g MP’s, National Farmers Union, Country Land and Business Association, farmer and supply chain groups). We aim to develop new online training opportunities for farmers and land owners as part of our future commitment to education and learning. 

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