Taking steps to prevent river pollution can save farmers a fortune while simultaneously safeguarding wildlife and habitats, according to The Wear Rivers Trust.
The organisation, which works to enhance landscapes and rivers throughout its 1,080sq km catchment area, is urging farmers to review their land management techniques, including the use of fertilisers, and to take steps to ensure chemicals and sediment do not run off into watercourses.
The Wear runs from Wearhead in the North Pennines to the sea at Sunderland, a distance of 97km, the surrounding area including numerous streams, and the major tributaries of the Browney and Gaunless rivers.
As well as reducing harm to river plants and animals there, the Trust says, it makes good business sense to prevent expensive inputs literally running down the drain.
Trustee and farmer, Bob Kirton-Darling, said: “Arable and livestock farming is a major industry in the river’s catchment area.
“The industrial heritage of County Durham and Wearside, from coal and lead mining and limestone quarries, is still contributing heavy metal into the watercourse.
“This is a historical problem but the issue of agricultural run-offs is a current one, often masked by water company waste water operations.
“The Trust and others are working with Northumbrian Water through its price review process, which will set its investment priorities for 2015-2020.”
Private water sources can be particularly at risk from agricultural run-offs, the organisation says.
This, in turn, can pollute the wider water watercourse, harming fish, water plants, invertebrates, and potentially impacting on tourism.
The knock-on effects could even hinder longer term opportunities for diversified farming businesses, such specialist food producers, as well as holiday cottage and B&B operations.
The Trust therefore recommends a number of steps farmers can take, with good agronomic practices being top of the list.
Farmers, it says, should invest in understanding soil profiles across their farms, perhaps using high-tech Precision Farming techniques to apply inputs only where they are needed.
Universal application of expensive fertilisers will make little difference to yields where they are not needed and the wider use of farmyard manure may be a cost-effective alternative to some inorganic substances, the organisation argues.
The use of metaldehyde to control slugs too close to watercourses or areas of run-off is also an issue, as this compound is totally soluable and cannot be removed by processing.
However, preventing chemicals running off land into water is only one element of the larger picture, the Trust claims, pointing out that as the floods of recent years have demonstrated, soil erosion and the slowing down of run-off from fields into rivers and streams is also a major consideration.
Kirton-Darling said: “Crop management plays a key part in soil heath soil and can act as a measure to prevent erosion.
“Sowing winter crops on land that would otherwise be left bare, for example, can capture excess nitrogen, improve soil structure and reduce run-off.
“Cover crops can reduce nitrate leaching by 50%, enabling you to reduce fertiliser application, increase organic matter and potentially save money.”
Problems can be minimised by grassing field corners, areas where water collects, and natural drainage pathways, which will also prevent rills and gullies from forming and provide extra habitats for farmland birds and wildlife.
The creation of physical barriers, such as buffer strips, meanwhile, will also slow, filter and trap pollutants before they enter the river.