Perhaps we should stop for a moment but way of tribute to the late Bruce Forsyth to mimic his TV game show Play Your Cards Right. Higher! Lower! Which are you shouting? If you are shouting higher, I am with you all the way. In many respects the wild brown trout, the most widely dispersed of our native fish, is priceless. If you are shouting lower, that’s fine but you’ll have to keep shouting for an awfully long time before you reach the value that the judicial system of England and Wales has helpfully set for us. 23p. Yes, that is no typo. Twenty three pence.
On December 11th Welsh farmer Iwan Humphreys pleaded guilty to discharging slurry into the River Dulad near Capel Isaac in July 2019. The result was the death of 2,478 fish, including 746 brown trout, over a 5km stretch of the river with the invertebrate population pretty well wiped out. The District Judge classified this as a Category 1 event, the worst level of environmental harm.
You might not be familiar with slurry but it is essentially the piss and shit from cattle. For farmers, dairy ones in particular, it is a constant headache. A lactating cow produces 30-40 gallons of it every day. That is a lot of ‘slurry‘ which is full of nasties that are fatal to fish and insect life. I don’t know the details of the Humphreys case but I can tell you there is barely a cattle farm in Britain that doesn’t leach some slurry into rivers. Sometimes it is leakage from the storage ponds. Other times runoff from slurry that has been sprayed onto the fields. Farmers are not meant to do this if rain is forecast within the following 24 hours or if the ground is waterlogged. But UK weather forecasts are hardly an exact science ….. and anyway once the constituent elements of the slurry are in the ground, wet or not, a proportion of it will inevitably find its way into the nearest watercourse. I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen the yellow/brown tell tale trickle entering a river, acting like weed killer as it wipes out river life, leaving behind a gravel bed coated with a furry, soft brown gunge.
But back to the court case. Yes, farmer Humphreys was fined £1,760 and ordered to pay prosecution costs of £9,430. But he was, in addition, levied with a Victim Surcharge, a penalty applied in order to provide compensation for the victims of crime. You might think, with over £11,000 already racked up, the Victim Surcharge was going to be pretty substantial. Ten of thousands maybe? I won’t make you play the Forsyth game again for the number, to me at least, denies further attempts at levity. The Victim Surcharge was £176 or 7p for each of the 2,478 fish killed.
I was staggered when I read the account of the court proceedings three weeks ago. I am still staggered today. Seven pence? What truly is the point of a justice system that values the cost of prosecution 53 times higher than that of the crime itself? Time and time again we see environmental law and regulation (Southern Water twice in a decade) that does little to protect and preserve the very thing it was designed to protect and preserve.
Nero famously fiddled whilst Rome burned. Our current day leaders hum the climate change blues as the rivers turn from pure to poison. Sorry to start your year on a downer.