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River Action FOI requests reveal widespread non-compliance with environmental laws across the dairy industry – leading to one of the largest causes of UK river pollution

The ever increasing intensification of dairy production driven largely by aggressive supermarket pricing pressures, failure to enforce environmental regulations, and inadequate government environmental incentives for dairy farmers are among the factors that have conspired to create one of the largest causes of UK river pollution, according to new data revealed by River Action.

The charity now calls on the dairy processing industry, major 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.

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made by River Action to the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, DAERA and SEPA disclosed multiple data sources indicating that most UK dairy farms are likely to be non-compliant with critical environment regulations aimed at preventing river pollution. The FOI’s reveal:

  • 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.
  • In Northern Ireland 50% of the 339 dairy farms inspected by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) between 2020 – 2022 were not compliant.
  • In Scotland: 60% of the 114 dairy farms initially inspected by Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) between 2020 and 2023 were in breach of regulations – with over half of the 56 dairy farms subject to follow-on inspections still being non-compliant.

These findings are corroborated by several other data sources, including a recent statement  by the Chair of the Environment Agency in February 2024, which showed that the dairy farms accounted for over 75% of all serious pollution incidents caused by agriculture, with agriculture being the largest single source of river pollution.

A perfect storm for wide-scale pollution of the UK’s rivers

According to River Action, conditions have aligned to create the worst possible conditions for the nation’s dairy farmers to be compliant with regulations designed to prevent pollution whilst remaining economically viable. These are:

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

River Action calls for the immediate implementation of critical remedial actions, including:

  • The UK’s largest dairy processors to introduce wider pricing incentives to reward dairy farmers for improved environmental performance
  • Supermarkets groups to adopt better environmental certification schemes given the clear failure of Red Tractor to be a reliable certification of environmental performance for dairy producers
  • Government to deliver on its promises to ensure the post-Brexit Environment Land Management Scheme (ELMS) farming subsidies become a major incentive for creating a systemic improvement of farming environmental performance 
  • DEFRA & its equivalent bodies in the devolved nations to a) expand & extend substantially  existing grant schemes to improve slurry management infrastructure and b) encourage adoption of technological solutions to re-cycle slurry to substitute chemical fertiliser usage
  • Environmental regulators to start a) fully enforcing existing anti-pollution regulations to ensure greater deterrence against the current widespread non-compliance across the industry and b) extend regulations to cover other pollution sources such as fodder maize production

Commenting, Charles Watson, Chairman and Founder of River Action 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.”


For interviews call Ian Woolverton on 07377 547 362 or email