How toxic waste devastated livestock on two Cumbrian farms

When a Cumbrian dairy farmer’s cattle began eating silage that had been treated with a new fertiliser in 2016, they became ill, bad tempered, abscesses started to appear on their necks, their milk yield dropped and abortions rose. The farmer had to cull 28 cattle over a six-month period.

Livestock have become very sick at two farms in Cumbria. Photograph: Peter Cade/Getty Images Livestock have become very sick at two farms in Cumbria. Photograph: Peter Cade/Getty Images

He told the Scottish Farmer that chemical analysis of the silage, soil and grass being eaten by his livestock revealed “known carcinogens and toxins”. Traces of substances including those commonly found in paint stripper, rubber tires, brake fluid, cosmetics, immuno-suppressants and chemotherapy drugs were identified. Milk and water samples were also contaminated with the chemicals, according to the report, and could pose a serious risk to human and animal health as well as to the environment. 

But little help was forthcoming from “environmental bodies”, he said. 

The same disaster appears to have struck again. Shortly after a new liquid fertiliser was applied in 2018, the livestock on a second Cumbrian dairy farm became seriously ill. Traces of contaminants, including petrochemicals, plastic bottle compounds, birth control pills, clothing, paint stripper, pesticides, herbicides, anti-cancer treatments, brake fluid, and hair conditioner have been found in samples of the farm’s soil, grass and silage, according to reports. 

The second farmer also told the Scottish Farmer that he found the Environment Agency to be of little help and said he had to conduct the testing himself to find out what was happening to his herd. The agency is now investigating, trying to determine the cause of the deaths, and the farm has shut down.

Details on who sold the farmers the fertilisers are scant, with the agency not willing to comment on ongoing investigations and the farmers keen to avoid publicity. 

An Environment Agency spokesperson said the agency was only made aware of the problems in January 2021 and that its role was to “ascertain whether there has been any adverse impact to the environment – and we take this role very seriously, sampling watercourses where necessary”.

“If we find evidence that there has been environmental damage we have powers to hold polluters accountable via legislation that governs unauthorised discharges into controlled waters,” they added.

However, if the agency suspects that any inappropriate waste activity has taken place, it can investigate waste streams that it believes may be subjected to activity outside of regulations and is able to use legislation to hold any offenders accountable.

Cumbria County Council said its trading standards department is aware of the issue, but was “unable to provide any further comment as an investigation is ongoing”.

It is unclear whether any other farms have been affected. An agronomist working in the Cumbria area told ENDS that the hazardous waste problem was a “very unique case” and that she had not heard of such things happening before.  

Fertilisers are regulated under the Fertilisers Regulations 1996, which state that those marketed in Great Britain must meet certain composition and labelling requirements. Given Brexit, DEFRA said that where they meet the composition and labelling requirements set out in Regulation (EC) 2003/2003, they may be sold as ‘EC fertilisers’ until December 2022.  They may also be sold as ‘UK fertilisers’ where they meet the requirements set out in retained Regulation (EC) 2003/2003.

Nonetheless, the rules are in line for an overhaul. DEFRA is “currently in the process of carrying out a full review of the domestic regulatory framework for fertilisers with a view to fully putting in place a conformity assessment framework for fertiliser manufacture.  The review includes consideration of composition, testing and labelling requirements for products”.

“It is our intention to provide for a modernised regulatory framework with the establishment of a scientifically rigorous and comprehensive conformity assessment system at its core, with powers to test and regulate inputs or component materials of products claiming to have a fertilising function,” it said. DEFRA aims to have run a consultation on the options by the end of this year, with a new framework “becoming fully operational in the next few years”.

There are a number of materials that can be spread on farmland and each, if abused or if errors are made, can introduce contaminants to farmers’ fields. 

Sewage sludge generated and sold by water firms containing domestic and industrial waste is one such material. In February 2020, Greenpeace’s Unearthed unit revealed that the Environment Agency had been sitting on a report detailing the pollution and health risks from the land spreading of sewage sludge for more than two years without taking any action.  The following month the agency published a sludge strategy, which involves bringing use of sludge under environmental permitting rules, but has delayed its implementation. The UK also imports sewage sludge from other countries.

Sludge or ‘biosolids’ are controlled under the Sludge (Use in Agriculture) Regulations 1989 (SUiAR), but must also conform to the farming rules for water, cross compliance, the code of good agricultural practice, and the code of practice for the use of sewage sludge in agriculture.  The agency is supposed to check a ‘sludge register’ at the water producers. Water companies themselves operate under a separate Biosolids Assurance Scheme. 

Waste expert Graeme Kennett, of consultancy 360 Environmental, notes: “Sewage produced by a private firm would generally be collected and taken to the utility companies for treatment. There is, however, a growing need for the emptying of the many domestic septic tanks, sewage plants in rural areas. This can be collected and taken to treatment works, but can also be treated by third parties to the required standard and applied to land under SUiAR.”

Land can also be fertilised with digestate, which needs to achieve standards required in PAS110 and comply with the Anaerobic Digestion Quality Protocol (ADQP) before it can be deployed and industrial wastes require permits before it can be spread onto land. 

Composts are spread too, providing they meet the standards required in PAS100 and comply with the Compost Quality Protocol. Compost producers are subject to regular audits but sampling is carried out by the producer and is not subject to verification from a third party.

Even ‘suitable’ industrial waste can be applied to land. It usually requires the operator to have a standard permit in place and certificates showing what is in the material, but it can also be spread under a bespoke permit. 

Kennett says there is a “huge opportunity for illegal waste disposal as only legal wastes going to land will ever be recorded or put in deployment application”. 

“The potential to sneak a dodgy load into a registered field site, PAS110 operation or slurry lagoon is far too easy... No Duty of Care audits are taken on producers, no field sites are ever checked, no samples are ever taken, nothing other than legitimate operators are forced to jump through hoops to get the paperwork sorted,” he added.

It is not clear which kind of fertiliser had been spread on the farmers’ land, but Patrick Holden, founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, is not surprised at the problems that have unfolded, saying that farmers are “on a road to nowhere”.

“Farmers are on a treadmill of intensification, trying to increase yield, stocking rates and herd sizes. British farmers have become commodity slaves, farming beyond the natural capacity of the land.” 

Grass is treated as a “grazing platform”, he says, adding that “one-sided nutrition can lead to fertility and health disorders”. “Such high yields can only end up with the decline of the dairy farm, welfare and the quality of the milk.

But he doesn’t blame farmers. He says intensification has regrettably become the orthodoxy. 

A farmer himself, he doesn’t use nitrogen fertiliser, instead farming within the limits of the land. “The nutrition of the soil and cows is improved at lower stockage rates,” he says.

A spokesman for the National Farmers Union would not comment on the farmers’ problems but warned: “It’s important to exercise caution when buying fertilisers – be vigilant - and always ensure it’s from a reputable seller - and keep samples for testing.”


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