The River Faughan is one of Northern Ireland’s great salmon rivers, but it now finds itself under threat from the country’s famed milk and butter industry as agricultural pollution suffocates plants and wildlife.

The river, which flows through the city of Derry is suffering from raised ammonia levels which threaten to deoxygenate the water.

“I’m surprised it’s not worse. But our regulators don’t really seem to be able to get a grasp of what has happened to the Faughan,” Dean Blackwood, director of River Faughan Anglers told i.

In recent years, Northern Ireland has undertaken a concerted drive to increase the size of its agricultural sector, including under a plan known as “Going for Growth”.

It has seen the total value increase by 39 per cent from £1.74bn in 2015 to £2.43bn in 2021, with dairy, Northern Ireland’s biggest agricultural money spinner growing 66 per cent in value over the same period.

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Meanwhile, intensive pig and poultry farming, which rely on the indoor housing of livestock, have grown rapidly from a small base.

All of this has left Northern Ireland with an agricultural pollution footprint, in particular of ammonia. Despite making up just six per cent of the UK’s land area and three per cent of its population, Northern Ireland produces 12 per cent of the country’s ammonia emissions.

Having initially peaked in the nineties, ammonia levels soared again between 2009 and 2019, returning almost to their 20th century highs.

This a problem for air quality, but also rivers. When ammonia gets into water courses it can form nitrogen oxides, using up oxygen, while it also acts as a fertiliser promoting algal growth which can smother rivers and further reduce their oxygen levels, killing off other plants and wildlife.

On the Faughan, ammonia levels are around 150 per cent above environmentally healthy levels, which has reduced oxygen levels in the river. Alongside other pollution, it threatens a key spawning ground for Atlantic salmon and trout in the British Isles.

James Orr, Friends of the Earth’s Northern Ireland director, told i that a lack of regulation was the problem and that the agricultural sector had too much sway over the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera).

“You have a [regulatory] system which is castrated, really,” he said.

The most recent agriculture minister, Edwin Poots of the DUP, was opposed to an independent environmental protection agency and in 2021 he reduced penalties for farmers who don’t meet requirements for good farming practices.

The Belfast Telegraph this week found that agricultural pollution incidents had risen every year since 2017, despite increases in subsidies to promote greener farming.

Before the devolved government collapsed, it drew up a new strategy to tackle ammonia, but the measures in it were made voluntary.

In the strategy, Daera itself admits that even with full compliance, the voluntary measures would mean that “the large majority of sites continue to experience exceedances”.

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“All our special sites, apart from one or two, are exceeding levels at which serious damage occurs. So even if all the measures are added up, and they’re voluntary, it’s still not going to do the very thing it’s supposed to do,” said Mr Orr.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union president David Brown told i that the UFU was “committed” to reducing farmers’ environmental footprint and that “reducing ammonia emissions and improving water quality is a key priority for the agri-food sector”. He said the UFU “welcomed” the draft ammonia strategy.

On the question of whether there was enough enforcement, Mr Brown said: “Farmers across NI have a challenging relationship with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. The inspection and penalty regime conducted on farms by NIEA is complex, demanding and extremely stressful.”

As well as agricultural pollution, the Faughan faces a number of other threats. The largest is the Mobuoy dump, a site thought to be western Europe’s largest illegal landfill site with over a million tonnes of waste in it.

It sits within a few metres of the banks of the Faughan, which has on occasion flooded the site.

So far, the authorities insist the leaching of pollutants into the river has not reached dangerous levels, but Mr Blackwood says it remains a looming threat to the river.

The authorities publicly announced the discovery of the site more than a decade ago, but don’t expect to have completed remediation work until 2027 at the earliest.

As well as the Mobuoy dump, much of the Faughan’s catchment area is at risk from unauthorised quarrying for sand and aggregate. Such is the scale of the problem that Mr Blackwood successfully lobbied the European Commission to open an investigation into Northern Ireland.

The Commission was critical of the continued practice of granting retroactive planning permission to quarries but was forced to close its investigation last year due to Britain’s exit from the EU.

Those quarries present a two-fold threat, said Mr Blackwood. First, from sediment and other runoff that clogs the Faughan and harms fish and invertebrates, and second from the possibility of them being turned into yet more illegal dumps.

Deara was approached for comment.

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