Farmer fined after ‘heartbreaking’ pollution incident that turned river brown and killed fish

A Somerset farmer has been ordered to pay out more than £25,000 after causing a discharge of slurry that turned a river brown, killing more than 120 adult fish, just five years after being found guilty of polluting the same stretch of the river in an incident that killed 1,700 fish.

Photograph; Jose A. Bernat Bacete Aerial view of the a river bed with dead fish

Michael Aylesbury, a director of Cross Key Farms, pleaded guilty at North Somerset Magistrates Court to causing an unpermitted discharge of slurry. He was fined £12,000 and ordered to pay costs of £13,631.08.

According to the Environment Agency, which brought the prosecution, the discharge polluted the Somerset Frome river in Frome, turning it brown and smelly in August 2020, killing more than 120 adult fish, including many large pike, roach and chub.

The regulator said that it was alerted to the pollution by members of the public on 20 August 2020. The sight of dead and dying fish distressed many people, the agency added. According to its statement, one local fisherman described feeling “physically sick” from the strong putrid smell of dead fish and said the sight of the dead fish was “heartbreaking”.

The Environment Agency said that pollution came from slurry that had been washed out of a soiled cattle trailer and rinsed out onto a concrete yard at Bollow Farm, Silver Lane, East Woodlands. In addition, it said, a pile of slurry left open to the elements was washed into the surface water drain, ending up in the river.

Environment Agency officers found the ditch and river smelt strongly of slurry and low in dissolved oxygen. Investigations also showed that the slurry pollution resulted in the death of most invertebrates over more than 2.6 kilometres downstream, according to the agency.

Aylesbury was charged with causing an unpermitted water discharge activity, contrary to Regulations 12(1)(b) and Regulation 38(1)(a) of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016.

He was also charged with failing to ensure that slurry was stored in accordance with Regulation 4(1) of the Water Resources (Control of Pollution) (Silage, Slurry and agricultural Fuel Oil) (England) Regulations 2010, contrary to regulation 10(1) of the Water Resources (Control of Pollution) (Silage, Slurry and agricultural Fuel Oil) (England) Regulations 2010.

In 2017, Aylesbury was found guilty of polluting this same stretch of the river Frome in 2016, killing more than 1,700 fish. He was fined £3,000 with £19,307 costs. 

Andy Grant, Environment Agency environment officer, said that it was “very disappointing to  find another pollution from Bellow Farm following a previous prosecution for a major incident. The river was just beginning to recover and the fish population was showing signs of improving.

“Informing us of the slurry spillage and keeping an eye on nearby watercourses are two simple actions the farmer should have taken to protect the local environment. We restocked the river following the 2016 incident and it is so disappointing to see that work undone.”

Earlier this year, Velcourt Ltd, a firm which manages farms and provides consultancy advice to farmers, was ordered to pay out over £34,000 after ammonia-rich runoff from one of the farms it operates escaped into a tributary of the river Frome.