A FARMER who once caught salmon and trout by the dozen fears that slurry has slowly suffocated the rivers and streams he fished as a young man.
He claimed that too much liquefied slurry was being spread too often on fields in the west of Carmarthenshire.
The man, who is his 50s, has asked the Local Democracy Reporter Service not to name him.
“I am talking against family and friends – I know prolific polluters,” he said.
And he was at pains not to demonise the farming community.
“There has been a demand to increase the milk supply, and farmers have responded very well and invested heavily,” he said.
“But somebody has overlooked what was going to happen with all that increase of slurry.
“Was it the best option available?”
Slurry helps grass grow but nutrients within the fertiliser can kill fish and other aquatic life when it enters rivers and streams.
The farmer, who contacted us after reading a story about a new West Wales Rivers Trust project, said: “Around 90% of slurry is liquefied so it can go through pumps and spray nozzles.
“On waterlogged soil and on steep-sided fields, which we have a lot of in Carmarthenshire, it’s only going to go one way.”
The man, who is in his 50s, likened streams and rivers in Wales to the country’s capillaries and arteries.
“Salmon used to come up to the capillaries to spawn,” he said.
“In the 1970s and 80s I used to see thousands of minnows and eels.
“I used to see stickleback, bullhead fish, thousands of brown trout and the occasional flatfish.
“Every pool would have aound 20 sea trout and two salmon of up to 15 or 20lbs.
“There were kingfishers, heron, dippers and the occasional cormorant.
“Some people in the nearby villages would come after heavy rain – the rivers would rise by a foot and trout would come rushing in.
“The people would catch the fish – it was their staple diet.”
He claimed that water quality in rivers including the Cowin, Cynin, Dewi Fawr, Gronw and Marlais, which all flow into the River Tâf, began deteriorating in the 1990s.
Spawning fish, he said, began to retreat from streams into the bigger waterways.
He said the situation worsened at the turn of the century with the rise of intensive farming and a switch from straw-based farmyard manure to the liqufied version.
“Some farmers now are spreading slurry every single day of the week,” he claimed.
The farmer also claimed that some slurry contained “parlour washings”, which he said was bleach and water used by dairy farmers to clean milking equipment.
Fields, he added, were more dense and compact nowadays, compounding run-off problems.
Referring to his local river – one of those mentioned above – he said: “You could see 20 fishermen there in the 1970s and 80s.
“No-one is there now. The river is dead. There isn’t even any ranunculus weed, which is a sign of a healthy river.
“As a fisherman, I am devastated. It has been a catastophe.
“We used to despise cormorants, but I would like to see one now.”
The farmer said that slurry run-off incidents in streams and rivers could be hard to investigate because the pollution could dissipate quickly.
He said this was exacerbated by the decline in fish, which would provide graphic evidence of such incidents if they were killed.
“If you saw hundreds of birds falling out of the sky, or hundreds of dead rabbits, there would be an outcry,” said the farmer.
“This happened stealthily – bit by bit. I could see it coming.
“There has been so much denial. It really grates on me.
“A lot of people living in the countryside are farmers.
“Nobody wants to see farmers struggling.
“There are also a lot of incomers. They have no idea what the rivers used to be like.”
He added: “I think even the structure of the soil has changed.
“The rivers used to be same colour of the surrounding soil when it rained after a dry spell – a caramel brown. Now it’s a green colour.”
He called on Wales’s environment boody Natural Resources Wales (NRW) to do more.
The farmer said some Welsh rivers, like the River Taff, which ends its journey at Cardiff Bay, were in good health.
“It’s a superb river full of trout,” he said.
The farmer said his passion for fishing has withered, but that he would love to see a clean-up of the waterways so that children could have a potential outdoor hobby.
He did not believe sewage and surface water pollution from homes during heavy rain was a major problem because the population had not changed significantly.
Asked what he thought the answer to the slurry issue was, he replied: “Straw-based manure, straw-bedded yards and more regulation.
“The only way to sort this out is to get farmers on board, wholeheartedly.
“They must have a genuine desire to clean up the rivers, use new ideas such as farmyard manure coupled with robust regulation, enforcement and sufficient fully-trained personnel, whether they be NRW or a new body to protect water courses.”
But ultimately, he said, it could mean fewer cattle.
“Rivers have got to be treated as a priority natural resource,” he said. “They run through the veins of Wales like blood.
“If you look after them, they look after you.”
Warning – Graphic image below…
The farmer also sent us a photo he said he had taken of a dead calf in a nearby river.
“There were two of them,” he said. “They didn’t have tags. I am confident they were chucked in the river.
“I have also seen bags of rubbish thrown in, and bits of butchered pigs.”
We put the issues raised by the farmer to NRW, the Welsh Government, farming body NFU Cymru and Carmarthenshire Council, which has a rural affairs working group and has also provided £20,000 to the West Wales Rivers Trust for a new tributary clean-up project.
An NRW spokeswoman said it monitored waterways throughout the country, assessing their chemical and biological standards and publishing improvement plans.
“We target effort and our resources to reduce risks and to provide the greatest benefits for people and wildlife,” she said.
“Dairy farms and slurry are not the only agricultural issue of concern.
“The poultry, pig, arable, sheep, beef and dairy sectors jointly responsible for 115 -165 substantiated pollution incidents in each of the last eight years.
“Around 50% of substantiated agricultural pollution incidents each year have been traced back to dairy farming, although it is important to note that only 3.8% of dairy farms in Wales are involved in a substantiated pollution incident each year.”
She added that a group had been set up in 2017 – incorporating farming organisations and the Welsh Government – which is focusing on tackling agricultural pollution.
This has led to new projects, and the appointment of eight new agricultural officers for NRW.
“These officers will work with farmers across Wales, giving advice on how to prevent pollution and comply with regulatory requirements as well as sharing best practice,” she said.
“The aim is to visit around 30% of the 1,700 dairy farms in Wales during this first year.”
She also said there were other causes of poor water quality, such as the legacy from mining, while good practice guides were in force for slurry spreading.
Asked if slurry could contain “parlour washings”, the NRW spokeswoman said: “Yes – slurry is manure and water and so can contain products such as washings and rainwater.
“The ongoing programme of farm visits provides advice minimising volumes of water getting into slurry storage.”
Asked if more so-called nitrate vulnerable zones were proposed for Wales, she said: “No, but last autumn Lesley Griffiths (Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs) confirmed that regulations covering the whole of Wales to protect water quality from agricultural pollution will be introduced this spring.”
The measures will include nutrient management planning, sustainable and proportionate fertiliser applications, protection of water from pollution related to when, where and how fertilisers are spread, and manure storage standards.
In a statement to the Local Democracy Reporter Service, Ms Griffiths said: “Failure to tackle the issue of agricultural pollution would be highly damaging for Wales; in terms of its reputation, on the environment and for Wales’ future trading arrangements post-Brexit.
“The appropriate and fair way to deal with the issue of agricultural pollution in Wales is to tackle it at source, with measures aimed at dealing with poor practice which is still seen far too frequently across Wales.”
NFU Cymru deputy president Aled Jones said farmers took their environmental responsibility “very seriously” but that “one incident of pollution is one too many”.
He said agricultural practices contributed to just under 15% of water quality failures in Wales.
“Farmers across Wales are taking steps to maintain and enhance the water quality through investment, participation in agri-environment schemes and a range of other actions,” added Mr Jones.
“We are clear that there is always more we can do and NFU Cymru is a strong advocate of appropriate interventions where poor practices are responsible.”
Cefin Campbell, Carmarthenshire Council’s executive board member for communities and rural affairs, said slurry management had been one of the key focal points of its rural affairs working group over the past 18 months.
“It’s a complex issue and a matter of getting the balance right between the need for farmers to offload slurry during the winter months and them being aware that over-spreading close to streams and rivers can cause serious pollution,” said councillor Campbell.
“Ultimately it’s about educating farmers, raising awareness about contamination, adhering to NRW guidelines and acting responsibly.”
He said that only a small percentage of farmers, according to NRW data, were persistent offenders.
He added: “NRW having more powers to take punitive action against farmers who don’t comply with Welsh Government guidelines might help the situation.”