A Conservative MP in an area with extremely polluted water has accused civil servants of taking an unnecessarily “heavy-handed” approach towards cattle farmers to make up for a lack of action towards water companies.
Ian Liddell-Grainger, MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, claims the Environment Agency (EA) have been “unreasonably tough” after he received complaints from local farmers, amid phosphates being three times the level they should be in the Somerset Levels, a wildlife haven containing the UK’s largest remaining wetland.
Liddell-Grainger suspects the EA wants to end cattle farming in the Levels, given the environmental issues caused from excessive meat consumption that have been explained by the likes of David Attenborough.
He described EA staff as having “descended on [cattle farmers] like the Spanish Inquisition”, according to Somerset Live.
In June 2021 Natural England rated the Levels as “unfavourable declining” after water quality monitoring showed phosphate levels three times higher than appropriate.
Too high phosphate levels mean rapid growth of plant life, such as algae, on the surface, among other issues. This starves the water below of oxygen, essentially suffocating fish and other aquatic wildlife and severely reducing biodiversity.
The biggest source of phosphate was sewage from local housing developments and an embargo has now been placed on further housebuilding in local catchments.
But Liddell-Grainger thinks farmers haven’t been given enough time to make necessary improvements, saying one was given 28 days to reduce effluent discharges (wastewater), and that farmers were the “soft targets”, saying the EA should have acted with “more vigour” against water companies.
He also believes livestock and dairy farmers could be “forced off” the 150,000 acre internationally-protected zone to improve water quality – something the EA has denied.
A spokesperson said: “The Environment Agency does not have a hidden agenda; we recognise the value and importance of agriculture to the landscape of Somerset and we are committed to working in partnership with farmers to find the right balance.”
“The balance is delicate”, they continued, saying cattle grazing “helps the natural habitats” but that livestock farming “presents risks to water quality if not managed carefully”.
They added that any farms found to be “non-compliant with the law” would be provided with “advice and guidance, and a reasonable timeframe in which to make improvements”.