Soil washing off fields is an increasingly common problem across the UK. Not only is it a waste of a precious, non renewable (at least in sensible timescales) resource, it causes serious pollution in rivers and streams and dangers to road users. More intense rainfall and increased intensification of agriculture appear to be making matters worse.
Herefordshire is especially vulnerable. The fine red soils which give the County much of its landscape character, are easily mobilised by heavy rain and the undulating terrain means it can move quickly and over long distances.
On 15 June, a number of heavy but localised showers and thunderstorms in Herefordshire resulted in tonnes of soil being washed from many field onto roads, then into ditches and streams. This resulted in some of the larger watercourses, like the River Lugg becoming discoloured through increased turbidity. Levels of nutrients, for example phosphate would also have been raised significantly.
The main areas of concern are where steeply sloping fields have been cultivated next to watercourses, especially potatoes, maize and soft fruits grown under plastic. Here the risk of soil erosion is much higher. We have identified many of these locations using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) information, aerial photography and field surveys. Because agriculture is so dynamic we need to keep reviewing this information. What is a high risk maize field one year might be low risk pasture land the next.
These higher risk sites were shown to be washing significant quantities of soil during Wednesday 15 and Thursday 16 June with significant impacts to roads and watercourses.
It is not just the Environment Agency that is concerned about soil washing off. Local Authority Highways are particularly concerned about this issue.
Putting aside the obvious road safety issues associated with mud on highways, the cleanup costs from soil on roads can be very significant for Local Authorities, who will seek to recover these costs from landowners wherever possible.
As Regulators, we have been working to identify high risk sites, where soil run off is likely to be most significant and where risk to local watercourses is greatest.
After rainfall events we gather evidence and information that we use for future enforcement and prosecution action and to refer sites to the Rural Payments Agency, where a breach of the soil standards in England have been identified under cross compliance.
Farm HEREfordshire has been set up in the last year in an attempt to raise awareness of soil erosion and pollution while promoting sustainable and profitable farming. It is possible to achieve both! It’s a partnership supported by industry, voluntary organisations and statutory bodies like us. See more about its work and some nice little videos here http://www.wyecatchment.org/farm-herefordshire/
If you see large amounts of soil washing off into local streams please report it on our 24 hour incident hotline 0800 80 70 60.