Data reveals pollution incidents at Suffolk and Essex livestock farms including pig muck in river

Pollution from farming can cause algae to build up and choke waterways. Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARY

Pollution from farming can cause algae to build up and choke waterways. Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

More than 100 pollution incidents have been reported at livestock farms in Suffolk and Essex since 2010, including pig muck leaking into rivers.

Most pig farmers in the region are said to go above and beyond the regulations. Picture: ARCHANT LIB

Most pig farmers in the region are said to go above and beyond the regulations. Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARY

The figures, obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), show livestock farms nationally are responsible for serious pollution incidents every week, on average.

But in this region the number of pollution incidents is falling, from a high of 38 in 2012, to just four last year. In Suffolk and Essex 138 were recorded from 2010-16, of which nine were deemed serious by the Environment Agency.

These include pig slurry contaminating a 10km stretch of a Suffolk river and unspecified “atmospheric pollutants”.

Environmental experts say bad practice can mean chemicals in pesticides, animal waste or fertilisers cause harm to ecosystems and give rise to pathogens, some affecting people.


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Farming leaders say an increase in the “professionalism of the industry” and better awareness of risks means there are “constant” checks against pollution.

Rob Wise, East Anglia’s environment advisor for the National Farmers’ Union, said most farms in the region went “above and beyond” the minimum requirements and many had Red Tractor Assurance accreditation.

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“The potential for the pollution to have a significant impact on people is very small,” he added. “The potential to damage aquatic life is somewhat greater, but again the chance of significant harm being done is relatively minor.”

TBIJ’s figures show most recorded incidents in Suffolk and Essex related to poultry farms, closely followed by pigs, with a small number at dairy farms.

Rob Wise, NFU regional environment adviser

Rob Wise, NFU regional environment adviser - Credit: submitted

Mid Suffolk saw the most incidents (59), followed by Colchester (39) and Maldon (23). There were also incidents in Suffolk Coastal, Waveney, Braintree and St Edmundsbury.

None fell under the most serious category, in which “major environmental impact” was deemed to have happened. However there were nine “category two” incidents, classed as “significant” impact.

Peter Melchett, policy director with the Soil Association, said pollution incidents were just one part of the problem. “The real underlying story is the continuous drip, drip of nitrogen and phosphates from fertilisers and pesticides, which leave waterways in a poor condition, particularly in this region” he added.

Mr Melchett said farmers should seek biological alternatives to fertilisers, using nitrogen fixing plants such as beans and clover. He also recommends using longer crop rotation cycles as an alternative to pesticides.

Rachel Fulcher, co-ordinator for the Suffolk Coastal branch of Friends of the Earth said agricultural pollution was of “deep concern”. “Here in Suffolk we welcome the sight of free-range hens, cattle and pigs and support such low-impact farming methods, especially if also organic,” she added. “Yet at the same time intensive methods abound. The more intensive the farming, the greater the difficulty in controlling the unwanted output in terms of animal waste, the risk of disease and the impact of pesticides and fertilisers in the environment, which are having catastrophic consequences.”

What the experts say

Lord Peter Melchett says farmers should seek altnernatives to chemical fertilisers. Picture: ANGIE K

Lord Peter Melchett says farmers should seek altnernatives to chemical fertilisers. Picture: ANGIE KENNEDY - Credit: Matthew Usher

Environmental experts say all farming practices have the potential to pollute, meaning good management was essential.

David Santillo, a senior scientist with Greenpeace, said the risk was greatest near water where run off from fertilizers, muck-spreading or pesticides could cause pollution.

“Well managed and maintained farms can minimise the risks through careful practices, good hygiene and proper design of housing for livestock, though there is still always the chance of a pollution incident should something go wrong,” Dr Santillo added.

“Bad practice, such as fertilizing at the wrong times, or too close to water, poor slurry management or animal husbandry, can lead to more serious incidents.

David Santillo, a senior scientist with Greenpeace, said the greatest risk of farm pollution occured

David Santillo, a senior scientist with Greenpeace, said the greatest risk of farm pollution occured near water. Picture: VANESSA MILES/GREENPEACE. - Credit: © Vanessa Miles / Greenpeace

“Some water pollution events are down to deliberate bad practice, others to a combination of poor weather, poor maintenance and bad luck.

“The more intensive the farm, especially the higher the density of livestock, the more critical pollution control measures become.”

Dr Santillo said the figures may not give the full extent of farm-related pollution, as there were potentially many that go unreported or unnoticed.

investigations unit logo

investigations unit logo - Credit: Archant

Where the data came from

There have been serious pollution incidents at livestock farms every week on average in England and Wales, according to the data gathered by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The Bureau obtained the data from the Environment Agency through the Freedom of Information Act. It found there were 683 serious incidents at dairy, poultry and pig farms from 2010 to 2016.

Incidents include slurry and agricultural waste leaking and contaminating fields and rivers, animal carcasses being illegally buried and waste being illegally dumped. The EA ranks pollution incidents from one to four, with one being the most serious. Most of the 3,700 incidents are the less serious categories.

The Bureau also obtained data on Environment Agency inspections of large intensive livestock farms in England. Inspectors found hundreds of non compliances each year, with 1,265 in 2016. Again the majority are not serious breaches.

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