Environment minister Rebecca Pow has shared concerns about pollution in the river Wye during a visit to a Herefordshire farm that borders it.
As “water minister”, improving water quality “is a priority for me”, she said at Tump Farm, near Fownhope.
“We are increasing farm inspections, but it’s not all about enforcement. We will be paying farmers to deliver public goods, including maintaining healthy soils which hold water better.”
As to Herefordshire Council’s call last week for the Government to introduce a Water Protection Zone covering the whole river, “we would have to take a lot of data and evidence on that, and it would be another tier of regulation”, she said.
“It’s a very complicated issue, and that’s why I’ve come today to get some on-the-ground insight.”
Leader of Herefordshire Council Coun David Hitchiner said: “The minister seems to understand the issues, and I am hopeful we will now see some positive action.”
But he added: “There doesn’t seem to be a clear route out of the housing ‘moratorium’ that’s holding up 2,000 new homes in the north of the county.”
Environmental regulations currently require new developments to show they will not add to the river’s pollution problems.
The council meanwhile “is about to exchange contracts with landowners” in order to begin its programme of creating pollution-mitigating wetlands, he said, adding it would then take “about three months” before they could enable new housing permissions to be granted.
Tump Farm lies on the edge of Sir Bill Wiggin MP’s North Herefordshire constituency.
“I’m delighted the minister is here – it shows how important the Wye is to the Government,” he said, and agreed that “we need to get builders building again” in the county.
On his own farm near Upton Bishop, “I do my best, with no fertilisers, or prophylactic antibiotics given to our pasture-fed cattle,” he said.
“Farmers should do the best thing rather than the easiest thing.”
Environment Agency (EA) national chief of staff John Leyland said: “We find we get better results through advice and guidance to farmers rather than enforcement. Most are willing to work with us, though we do prosecute where we have to.”
In the next eight weeks, the EA plans 150 inspections in the Wye area – “more than in the whole of the West Midlands last year”, its area director Clare Dinnis said.
Technology such as satellites and drones is also helping to identify pollution sources, she added.
Meanwhile, solutions on farms can be lower-tech, such as removing manure piles, introducing buffer strips between farmed land and watercourses, and maintaining cover crops, as had been done at Tump Farm, a former dairy farm now mostly arable.
The farm’s owner Martin Williams said: “It’s a difficult economic and environmental balance.”
The Government’s plans to pay farmers in future for public goods, including protecting rivers “is probably the right thing to do, and in line with what our customers want – but creating interest in an underfunded scheme would be very difficult”, he said.