The Environment Agency (EA) has more than doubled its rate of farm inspections in England, finding slurry and silage storage permit breaches at more than half the sites it inspected.

According to a new report published by the EA on Tuesday 1 November, the regulator carried out 721 inspections on 693 farms in 2021 – more than twice the number for 2020.

That uplift came as the government awarded the agency extra funding specifically to increase farm visits.

See also: Environment Agency accused of aggressive handling of farmers’ cases

Data revealed in the Regulating for People, Environment and Growth report (PDF) 2021 shows that 976 improvement actions were issued to farmers as a result of those inspections and 413 had since been completed.

Breaches of the Silage, Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil (SSAFO) regulations, which govern slurry and silage storage infrastructure, accounted for 52% of those notices.

While, at 43%, there was non-compliance with at least one of the Farming Rules for Water.

Failure to have the current nutrient planning and soil tests under Rule 1 were the most recurring breaches identified, the report stated.

Enforcement a ‘last resort’

“Our response has been to advise and guide farmers, using enforcement as a last resort,” it added.

The EA has also established a new remote sensing team to develop methods to remotely assess compliance with agricultural regulations using satellite imagery, for instance identifying poached land that is likely to cause pollution.

Of the 561 serious pollution incidents across all sectors in 2021, 54 were caused by farming activities, down from 58 in 2020.

Most of these were the result of containment and control failures and half were caused by the dairy sector.

An upward trend of incidents involving dairy farms has fallen since 2017, but the EA suggests that this is “not a sufficient signal of change to provide confidence of sustained improvement in the sector”.

“Based on our inspection evidence, over the last two years we still find compliance overall is low, with particular concerns around slurry storage and slurry management,” the report revealed.

Dairy Crest incidents

Of the serious incidents involving industry, Dairy Crest’s Davidstow Creamery was responsible for four of these.

This culminated in a recent £1.5m fine for poor management of liquid waste, odour and environmental reporting.

For serious pollution incidents involving odour, there were none in agriculture in 2021, compared to eight in 2020 and 25 in 2018.

Meanwhile, farming was found to be responsible for 43% of all methane emissions.

EA chief executive Sir James Bevan blamed agriculture for being a “significant source of environmental emissions and incidents”.

“Non-compliance here results in significant negative impacts on our rivers,” he said. “Brexit is a considerable opportunity to simplify and reform EU legacy legislation for the better.”

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