Often driven by rainfall, diffuse pollution arises from the loss of substances such as phosphorus, faecal pathogens, nitrates and pesticides, often bound to soil particles, from the land into the local water environment. Individually, these losses may be of little risk to water quality, but when combined across a whole catchment, they can have a serious impact on ecology, drinking and bathing waters. As such, diffuse pollution is recognised as the main cause of water bodies failing water quality standards in Scotland.

We are currently leading on a national programme of work to tackle rural sources of diffuse pollution and encourage best practice across the rural sector.

Fourteen diffuse pollution priority catchments have been identified in the first river basin management cycle for the Scotland and the Solway Tweed river basin districts. These are recognised as containing some of Scotland’s most important waters (for drinking water, conservation, industry or tourism) but have been identified as failing water standards set by the European directives.

Our rural diffuse pollution priority catchment approach has three phases:

  • characterisation and evidence gathering (desk based study and catchment walks);
  • awareness raising;
  • one to one engagement with land managers to assess rural diffuse pollution risk.

Each phase is adapted depending on the issues in each priority catchment. However, before work is carried out on the ground, our catchment co-ordinators make contact with all the land managers and stakeholders in their area to let them know why they might see SEPA officers walking the burns and rivers.

Before and after the implementation of measures relating to GBR 20 (cultivation of land)



Catchment walks

During the catchment walks, our officers are looking at many sources of pollution risks, including compliance with Diffuse Pollution General Binding Rules (DP GBRs).

This might include land based activities such as the applications of fertilisers, poaching from livestock, or crops being cultivated too close to the water. We may also come across poorly maintained septic tanks and unlicensed discharges as well as engineering pressures such as channel re-alignment or culverting. Officers would also identify waste issues such as burning and fly-tipping as well as recording the presence of the four main invasive non-native species, giant hogweed, Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam and rhododendrons. Of course, we’re also checking that the existing data we have on these watercourses is correct.

When an officer identifies an issue on the ground it is logged on a computer, out in the field. All of this data is held on a central database. This helps to build up a picture of the issues within each water body and river catchment. Back in the office, this data can be interrogated to help us to identify the areas where we need to concentrate our efforts as well as the type of mitigation options that might be most suitable in the catchment area.

The DP GBRs were introduced in 2008 via the Water Environment (Diffuse Pollution) (Scotland) Regulations. Developed from the Code of Good Agricultural Practice; the Prevention of Pollution from Agricultural Activity (PEPFAA) and Forest and Water Guidelines, the seven DP GBRs now provide a statutory baseline which will provide a general level of environmental protection. Unlike licences or permits, the DP GBRs don’t have associated fees or application forms, however they do have specific conditions that must be complied with to avoid enforcement action.

As well as environmental breaches, officers are keen to record examples of good practice too.

In the first river basin management planning (RBMP) cycle, in the fourteen priority catchments, over 5500km were walked by officers and an average of one breach of the DP GBRS was recorded per kilometre walked. The most frequent issues were non compliances with GBRs 19 (keeping of livestock), 20 (cultivation of land) and 18 (the storage and application of fertiliser). Over 75 % of the non-compliances related to poaching by livestock near to a watercourse.

Awareness raising

Our Land Unit have spoken at over 400 land manager events including workshops, training events, stakeholder meetings and college lectures to discuss current options for minimising diffuse pollution from rural land. Importantly, the events are aimed at discussing ‘how to comply’ with the GBRS as well as identifying those measures that can provide an economic as well as an environmental benefit.

Each event is tailored to the priority catchment and land manager requirements and focuses on a specific compliance issue or mitigation option. One event may look at the rules on cultivation of land and how the changes in techniques and use of machinery can help to reduce soil erosion and run off. Another event may focus on the provision of alternative watering for livestock that will reduce poaching and erosion of the river bank that leads to nutrient, bacteria and soil being washed into the rivers.

The Diffuse Pollution Management Advisory Group (DPMAG) established a partnership approach to influencing change in the rural sector. An example of the work done by DPMAG members has been the creation of Farming and Water Scotland website and the Know the rules guides for farmers.

In 2013-2014, a partnership project provided free soil assessments and individual soils and nutrient advice to land managers in two sub catchments of the Ayr and Tay Priority Catchments as well as training events on nutrient management (PLANET 4farmers) and soil compaction and erosion mitigation. The project group included Scottish Government, SEPA and SRUC staff.

One to one engagement

As well as holding workshops and open days about diffuse pollution with partner organisations, we have also carried out to date approximately 2,800 one to one visits with land managers. These visits have focussed on ways that land managers can reduce the risks of diffuse pollution from their land.

501 revisits in six of the catchments have also been carried out so far, to check the progress of any works required. Over 80% of land managers in these catchment are either compliant or have started work to ensure compliance. There is currently a lot of work going on in the priority catchments to put measures in place to mitigate the effects of diffuse pollution. These measures are a mixture of self-funded work, Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) funded measures and local project initiatives that focus on multiple benefits.

We will continue to provide support and guidance for rural land use. The organisations responsible for overseeing compliance for the range of schemes across the sector must provide land managers and businesses with the appropriate advice and tools that enable the right environmental improvements to be made.

Before and after the implementation of measures relating to GBR 19 (keeping of livestock)