Win-win for Cornish farmers and South West Water in first auction to reduce river pollution

Posted: Thursday 15th November 2012

Farmers with land close to the River Fowey in Cornwall are getting a helping hand from South West Water to make improvements to their farms that in turn will help reduce pollutants seeping into the river.

South West Water has teamed up with the University of East Anglia and the Westcountry Rivers Trust in a pilot scheme that puts a value on natural resources – in this case, the river water – and pays to help preserve it. The company has made a pot of cash available (£360,000) for which the farmers have been bidding in the first ever ‘valuing nature auction’ of its kind in the UK.

Water companies invest vast amounts of money in cleaning river water to make it fit to drink. Farming practices can contribute to the deterioration of river water through the run-off of sediment, nutrients, pesticides and animal manure from the land, making the clean-up even more costly.

This pilot scheme in Cornwall should save money for both South West Water and the farmers. The project team received bids from 41 farmers in the region. Almost half of the bids were successful and 18 farms will now benefit from improvements. South West Water will pay for part or all of the cost, up to a maximum of £50,000 per farm.

Martin Ross, Environmental Manager for South West Water, said, ‘The scheme will reduce the amount of pollutants getting into the river, which in turn will help reduce our costs of cleaning the water for drinking. And the farmers are getting financial help with their farm improvements so it’s a win-win situation.’

Dr Laurence Couldrick, Head of Catchment Management for Westcountry Rivers Trust, said, ‘We asked farmers to look at a range of improvements that could reduce potential pollutants from soil and animals getting into the River Fowey. The options for famers included things like building a slurry pit, installing a roof over their yard or manure store, or fencing the land near to the river inlets to prevent cattle from straying into the water. Farmers could also choose to brush up on pesticide management techniques to ensure that the timing of their crop spraying is at its most effective, and the type of pesticide used is the easiest to clean up if it does get into the water.’

This is the first time the auction approach has been used in the UK. The University of East Anglia provided the expertise needed to design and run the auction.

Professor Brett Day from the University of East Anglia said ‘The auction approach hasn’t previously been used in the UK for schemes like this, so it was a bold move by South West Water to give it a go. An auction puts much more focus on farmers than other possible schemes. Farmers propose what they can do on their land to improve river water quality and then bid in the scheme for a payment for those actions. Competitive pressures ensure farmers don’t ask for excessive amounts, but still get a payment that they are happy with. ’

One of the local farmers who was successful in the scheme, Trevor Hoskins from Branston Farm on Bodmin, explained why they bid in the scheme; ‘Basically we need to increase the slurry storage that we’ve got now to make sure that we’re not spreading slurry at the wrong time of year. And with the watercourse; well we’ve got the river running through the valley and at the moment, the animals go through the river to get from one side of the valley to the other. So we thought we could fence that off, which would stop them treading in the water as much - we’ll make drinking places and have proper fences and gateways’.

Getting the scheme up and running in such a short period of time involved people from each organisation bringing their own expertise and working closely together. Dr Ruth Welters, from the University of East Anglia, holds a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Business Internship with South West Water and said, ‘Working with South West Water in this way has helped me to understand the issues faced by water companies, and at the same time I’ve really enjoyed meeting some of the farmers involved and to understand how improvements on their land can contribute to longer term benefits for wildlife and other users of the river.’

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