CORNWALL is blessed with some of the most charming rivers and lakes in Britain. Thanks to careful farming and environmental regulations they are relatively healthy.
However, Cornwall's water environments are under increasing pressure from changing land use and climate. Loe Pool Forum (LPF) is a Helston-based action group working to improve local water quality for the future. The forum recently funded me to conduct a piece of action research with Helston's farming community. The study aims to understand the social, cultural and economic pressures on local agriculture and how that might affect water quality.
LPF is concerned about the River Cober catchment. Flowing from Cornwall's central granite ridge south of Camborne, the River Cober runs down through Helston, into a section of the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), pausing in Loe Pool lake, before entering the Atlantic Ocean. Home to otters, trout, eels and rare over-wintering wildfowl, the Cober and Loe Pool are of unique environmental importance.
Water pollution issues are typically dealt with by the Environment Agency through fines. Alongside this, LPF are developing a different and more engaged approach with Helston's farming community. In many ways our research is about starting a local conversation between two cultures – farmers and environmental scientists. In particular, LPF wants to know how it can best allocate potential funding to support farm businesses and protect the water environment. This includes increasing uptake of Natural England's stewardship schemes.
Research so far has focused LPF's attention on the complex set of pressures the farming community faces. For example, LPF would like to help farmers to improve farmyard infrastructure and in doing so reduce the risk of dirty water reaching the river. The research has shown that a farmer's decision to invest in infrastructure is strongly influenced by the next generation of farmers in the family and whether they will continue working the farm. This unfortunately links to the issue of an ageing farming population in Cornwall and the lack of young people entering farming.
Another big challenge which the research has identified is the historic relationship between farmers and environmental agencies. In the past, farmers could associate 'scientific' agencies with legislation and fines. Over the next few years LPF wants to improve that relationship so farmers can take advantage of the advice and financial support of expert agencies, for example Natural England's Catchment Sensitive Farming and Soils For Profit schemes.
It is in everyone's interest that our water quality remains as high as possible. As so often when environmental concerns and economic imperatives meet, joined-up thinking will be required.
This is an ongoing piece of research so if you would like to know more or get involved please contact Timothy Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org
Environment series articles from the past four years are available on the new AONB website, found at www.cornwallaonb.org.uk