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Court victory shows protecting our precious rivers and wetlands is no longer a ‘last resort’


Agricultural pollution soil erosion 3 x550

The Angling Trust, Fish Legal and WWF-UK have secured a major step forward for the protection of England’s most important rivers and wetlands.

At a Judicial Review in the High Court, the three organisations claimed ministerial involvement had stifled action to address harmful pollution from farms – despite the Government legally committing to ensuring that the 44 protected freshwater sites were healthy by 2015.

The High Court judge recognised the need for urgent action to protect these sites and the wildlife that lives there. As a result of the legal victory, the Government must evaluate the use of mandatory Water Protection Zones (1) alongside voluntary steps by farmers, which have so far failed to protect these vulnerable places from farm pollution.

The judge in the case, Sir Andrew Collins, said it was “obviously of the greater importance” that proper measures were taken as soon as possible to meet the obligations of the Water Framework Directive (2).

He added: “We all know our wildlife is suffering as a result of pollution and not only wildlife, but people as well.”

Agricultural pollution soil erosion 2 X550

Agricultural pollution costs the taxpayer
between £758 million and £1.3 billion per year

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust & Fish Legal, said: “This is a win for cherished species like the kingfisher, salmon and trout which are seriously threatened by this pollution. Salmon populations have declined by 40% in the last 30 years (3), and agricultural pollution is one of the most significant causes of this.

“This sends a clear message to Government that they must stop dragging their feet and now take the necessary steps to improve the health of these precious rivers and wetlands.”

David Nussbaum, Chief Executive of WWF-UK
, said that the decision “takes the ministerial handcuffs off the Environment Agency” and allow it to better protect rivers and wetlands.

“The Government must now act with haste and put necessary measures in place to tackle pollution from farms that is devastating these specially protected sites,” he added.

In 2009, the Government publicly committed to using Water Protection Zones, which had previously been identified as the most appropriate and cost effective solution to tacking agricultural pollution affecting these specially protected sites, alongside voluntary steps by farmers. This decision was set in law after an extensive consultation process.

Investigations by the Angling Trust, Fish Legal and WWF-UK revealed that, in January 2011, Defra ministers and the Environment Agency decided to put the brakes on the use of  Water Protection Zones, except as a ‘last resort’. This was despite overwhelming evidence that other measures to tackle the pollution problem would not be sufficient (4). The decision was not made public and no Water Protection Zones have been put in place to tackle this pollution.

David Nussbaum added: “This was an ideologically driven decision, taken behind closed doors, which contravened the Government’s public position. It also flew in the face of Defra’s own analysis which has repeatedly shown that relying on voluntary action by farmers alone would not solve the problem of agricultural pollution.”

The Government’s own figures show that getting three-quarters of rivers, lakes and wetlands up to good health would boost the economy by £8.5 billion – through increased tourism, recreation, improved flood resilience and enhanced quality of life (5). Conversely, agricultural pollution costs the water and tourism industries, and the taxpayer and angling groups, between £758 million to £1.3 billion each year (6).

Currently, only 17% of the rivers in England are in good health, according to the Government’s own statistics (7). In October 2015, the European Commission issued legal guidance warning the UK Government of its failures to implement EU water legislation. The EC’s warning may signal the beginnings of formal infraction proceedings which could lead to fines running into the millions of pounds a year (8).

David Wolfe QC, said: “Defra and the Environment Agency’s new statement should mean that they will now actively consider Water Protection Zones as the way of delivering benefits for the environment rather than waiting until other approaches had demonstrably failed before even turning to them.”


(1) Water Protection Zones are the primary regulatory tool identified by the Government to tackle agricultural pollution. A WPZ provides a legal framework for introducing bespoke local measures to reflect the needs of a specific catchment that are not being tackled by existing voluntary measures.

(2) The EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD) came into force in December 2000. Its purpose is to establish a framework for the protection of inland surface waters (rivers and lakes), transitional waters (estuaries), coastal waters and groundwater to ensure that all aquatic ecosystems meet Good Status by 2015.

(3) Annual salmon stock assessments, Environment Agency and Cefas (2014)

(4) Government response on way forward following consultation on diffuse sources in England for the protection of waters against pollution from agriculture (Defra) 17 March 2008.

(5) Environment Agency, 2014. A consultation on the draft update to the river basin management plans Part3: Economic analysis.

(6) Defra consultation, New basic rules for farmers to tackle diffuse water pollution from agricultural in England: Impact assessment. READ HERE

(7) Environment Agency data: READ HERE

(8) European Commission press release: READ HERE

LISTEN HERE to a BBC Radio 4 Farming Today podcast with Mark Lloyd explaining the reasons for taking the Government toi court (starts at 7min 45sec).

Defra and the Environment Agency produced a position statement following the High Court hearing which can be downloaded below. Whilst not accepting that they had applied a “last resort doctrine” to the use of Water Protection Zones, due to this legal action Defra and the EA have now agreed to evaluate using and deploying them at specific conservation sites.

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