50% of Northern Irish dairy farms inspected were found to be non-compliant with environment regulations aimed at preventing river pollution.

The 339 dairy farms were inspected by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) between 2020 and 2022 and half were not compliant.

River Action Freedom said it is calling on the dairy processing industry, food retailers, government and environmental regulators to provide more incentives, support and deterrence to mitigate what has become “one of the largest single causes of river pollution in the UK”.

In England, 69% of the 2,475 dairy farms inspected between 2020 & 2021 by the Environment Agency (EA) were in breach of environmental regulations.

In Wales, 80% of the 83 dairy farms inspected by Natural Resources Wales (NRW) between 2020 and 2022 were non-compliant with anti-pollution regulations.

60% of the 114 dairy farms initially inspected by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) between 2020 and 2023 were in breach of regulations.

Over half of the 56 dairy farms that were subject to follow-on inspections were found to still be non-compliant.

A ‘perfect storm’ for pollution

River Action Freedom said conditions have aligned to create the worst possible conditions for the nation’s dairy farmers, making a “perfect storm” for wide-scale pollution of the UK’s rivers.

Current conditions mean it is difficult for dairy farmers to be compliant with regulations designed to prevent pollution whilst remaining economically viable, the charity said.

These conditions are:

  • Recent intensification of the UK dairy industry resulting in a much higher pollution load per hectare;
  • Failure of government to adequately incentivise better environmental performance;
  • Failure by environmental regulators to enforce laws designed to prevent river pollution;
  • Inadequate environmental assurance standards in use by food retailing industry to certify dairy produce;
  • Unprecedented weather conditions causing underinvested slurry management infrastructure to be overwhelmed.

River Action is calling for the immediate implementation of remedial actions which include the UK’s largest dairy processors introducing wider pricing incentives to reward dairy farmers for improved environmental performance.

As well as this, the charity wants supermarkets to adopt “better environmental certification schemes given the clear failure of Red Tractor to be a reliable certification of environmental performance for dairy producers”.

Chair and founder of River Action, Charles Watson, said:

“The unacceptable pollution levels caused by the UK dairy industry is not dissimilar to the current UK sewage pollution crisis: aged infrastructure designed for much lower volumes of effluent, being overwhelmed by the combination of intensification of use and more volatile weather conditions.

“With a herd of 50 cows calculated to be capable of emitting the equivalent amount of pollution as a human settlement of 10,000 people, it is hardly surprising that the dairy industry is placing an unstainable pollution burden on many river catchments across the country.

“Meanwhile, yet another chapter in the British river pollution scandal unfolds, our impotent regulators continue to watch on in a solely “advisory” capacity, and the giant supermarket groups happily count their profits at the cost of the continuous degradation of the environment.”