Farming & Agriculture

Agriculture and Water Quality

Agriculture is one of the main sources of diffuse water pollution, this is pollution that cannot be pinpointed to one specific location. There are a range of pollutants that enter our river from agriculture including sediment, nitrates, phosphates, metaldehydes, pesticides and herbicides. All of these pollutants have varying effects on the biodiversity and health of the freshwaters in the Thame catchment, but there are also other factors to consider. With our growing population food production is very important and we therefore need to work with farmers to ensure a more sensitive approach to farming where possible.

Nutrient Run Off

In order to get the highest yield, many farmers use fertilisers to enrich the soil. These fertilisers come in many varieties but all of them contain phosphates and nitrates. To save money, most farmers will calculate the exact amount of fertiliser needed by their crop, the idea being that this is then all used up and none of it is wasted. Unfortunately, in reality this rarely happens; rain is a big factor in this! If fertilisers are applied and then there is heavy rainfall, much of this fertiliser is leached from the soil and enters groundwater, ditches, streams, ponds and rivers.

Steep Farmland

Steep farmland in the headwaters of the Thame, demonstrating how quickly water could run-off of this land.  Credit: Pascale Nicolet, Freshwater Habitats Trust.

The Arable Advice Project focused on advising arable farmers how they can farm more sensitively to the water environment.

Other Pollutants

Alongside fertilisers, other chemicals are also used in order to improve crop yield. Using herbicides and pesticides to prevent competition and predation is common. These chemicals can have varied impacts on our river, but very harmful and persistent chemicals cannot be used in the UK currently.

One pesticide that is currently under the spot light is metaldehyde, a type of slug pellet. This compound is highly restricted in drinking water, which means that Thames Water must ensure that it does not exceed 1 microgram per litre. Unfortunately metaldehyde is very difficult to remove from drinking water and therefore Thames Water is working hard to reduce its use; you can find out more about this here.

Sediment Input

Sediment from our agricultural land has detrimental impacts on our rivers and streams, resulting in vital breeding grounds for fish lost and smothered.

Although sediments can come from recently ploughed crop land, much of the sediment comes from livestock farms. Where livestock are found in high densities, large muddy areas are common where the animals congregate, this encourages sediment run off. Riparian land used for grazing provides benefits to landowners as there is a constant water supply for their animals. Uncontrolled access to the river, by large numbers of animals, causes bank degradation, slumping and loss which all encourages sediments to enter the river. In smaller densities, livestock can actually have positive impacts as they encourage varying habitats and plant communities. Unfortunately this is relatively uncommon.


Cattle drinking point which shows how easily sediment could be mobilised with disturbance.

In some places, livestock do have controlled access to the river, but even this can have negative impacts. Our image shows a cattle drink area where large numbers of cattle must access in order to drink. This sort of problem can be fixed simply by providing a more solid substrate which does not encourage sediment mobilisation and smothering of nearby habitat.

Although it may seem that there is a simple solution to this problem, such as fencing the river, it is very important for us to consider long term impacts of our work. Fencing the whole of the river would cause further issues in the future as dense scrub and trees would be begin to grow and shade the watercourses. We will continue to work with livestock farmers to provide cost effective solutions which will provide long term protection for our rivers, as well as ensuring business as usual for the farmers that we depend on.

Example of cattle poaching by Severn Rivers Trust

Take a look at some of the work we have already done with farmers to reduce this project as part of the Oxfordshire Livestock Project.