Permit regime threatens small growers

Changes made in light of EU Habitats Directive require some growers to create settlement ponds.

Watercress: permits required - image: Brian Robert Marshall
Watercress: permits required - image: Brian Robert Marshall

A tougher Environment Agency permit regime for the watercress industry is endangering smaller traditional hand-cultivated watercress farms, it has been claimed.

The changes, made in light of the EU Habitats Directive, have in some cases obliged growers to create settlement ponds for filtering water prior to discharge - and to pay an annual fee in order to do so.

One grower, Jon Marshall, has already ceased cultivating beds at Itchen Stoke in Hampshire after receiving a bill for £3,000 from the Environment Agency to cover such measures. "Big farms can afford this, but I can't," he said.

Owner of the site Charles Ranald added: "Because of the threat of the charges, no one wants to rent it.

"It's too small to have machines on it. I'm heartbroken that it's like this after 150-200 years. They are a part of Hampshire heritage."

In an official statement, the Environment Agency said: "Watercress farms that do not currently have a permit to discharge their waste water to the Itchen will be required to have one, including limits on their use of phosphates.

The statement continued: "Similarly, in cases where some watercress farms already have a permit we will modify those to introduce limits to their discharge of phosphates."

Industry defence No river abstraction

One of Britain's largest watercress growers has defended the industry after it was accused in a Guardian newspaper article of over-abstracting water from vulnerable chalk stream habitats and polluting them with runoff.

The Watercress Company managing director Tom Avery told Grower: "There are no watercress farms abstracting from rivers - they make use of natural springs instead."

He added: "Watercress farms do have discharges, but the Environment Agency's targets are ten times tougher than those for water-treatment works, which are releasing year-round. Then there are domestic septic tanks, which are unregulated.

"Fishing and other lobby groups try to push a negative story, and we are the low-hanging fruit."

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