Drainage issue bogged down by confusion over rules

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IT MAY be unfashionable, and it might just be downright dangerous for me to say so, but I currently have a smidgeon of sympathy with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

For those farmers whose blood pressure has just risen considerably on reading that, I would ask you hold fire until I explain why I think Sepa is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Since it came into being in the mid-1990s, Sepa has been largely – if not totally – unloved by the farming community. Practices which had previously been unregulated and free now came under new legislation – and to emphasise the change, they often came with a financial charge.

So there was a well of resentment from the start, often made worse by the contrast between those farmers whose attitude to some of their work practices was based on “its aye been done that way” and the bright-eyed idealism and non-practicality of some of those enforcing the new regulations.

After a rocky start, the relationship settled down a bit until the effects of last summer showed up major defects – from the farmers’ point of view – in the regulations governing the clearing of ditches.

All around the country, full and overflowing watercourses can be seen and where this has been the case for a matter of months, it is also possible to see little clumps of water rushes quickly gaining ground in what used to be first-class grazing or arable land.

For a farmer, such a sight is bad. But what cannot be seen, yet is possibly causing more long-term damage to the fields, is the silting-up of field drains that have for perhaps a century and a half emptied themselves into the ditches, burns and streams.

Acres of once-productive land now lies waterlogged and will not produce anything worthwhile until the water table can be lowered. It matters little to farmers that Sepa has no remit for field drains. As far as farmers are concerned, they need their drains to work freely.

One of the routine jobs in winters gone past was of the men being sent to clean the ditches. It was a case of putting their wellies on and working their way upstream; all the time making sure any sediment build-up was removed and waterside sedges were trimmed back.

It was not a particularly enjoyable piece of work, but it was an important piece of routine maintenance (and occasionally you could pick up small brown trout while you were there, if you were quick enough).

The men were later replaced by machines and they made a cleaner – from the farmers’ point of view – job, leaving straight ditches with smooth sides and spoil dumped on the headlands.

But in environmental terms, such an effort is bad news and Sepa jumped on anyone doing such work. To add emphasis to their case, they took the miscreants through the legal system, often relieving them of several thousand pounds in fines.

That financial threat was also linked to a potential loss of Single Farm Payment, and has effectively stopped most drainage work in its tracks, with farmers fearing transgressing rules which some might not fully understand.

This brings us to last week, where the Cabinet Secretary, having been deluged with complaints from farmers and from NFU Scotland about restrictions on drainage, announced that “normal maintenance of drainage infrastructure had to go on”.

This was not a carte blanche for every farmer to pile ahead and clear the ditches on the farm however they pleased, as he did also state “we have to protect our water quality and our wildlife”, but it has put pressure on Sepa to come up with some more practical attitude to drainage than they currently have.

What the minister wants is for Sepa guidance to be simple and straightforward, which by implication means the current advice is not.

Talks have been going on between NFUS and Sepa on what can be achieved, but the third player in this particular game is Scottish Natural Heritage, whose sole priority is the protection of wildlife. It has no remit on ensuring food supplies continue, nor for land to remain in production.

So Sepa is caught in a pincer movement with ministerial and farming pressure to bring forward more practical methods of ensuring fields are not flooded in future, and with SNH, which may have no particular desire to change the existing scheme.

This may need some political intervention to decide on which priority is prioritised.