Over the past year, Anglian Water and the farmers who manage the land around some of our key reservoirs – along with the agronomists who advise them – have been working together on a trial. The trial is called Slug it Out and it’s the largest example of a product substitution campaign that has ever been tried in the UK.

We’ve asked farmers to switch from using a pesticide that is highly water soluble (metaldehyde) to one that is less so (ferric phosphate) and it’s all aimed at the effective control of slugs.

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Slug pellets are vital for agriculture in our region

Metaldehyde is the conventional ingredient in slug pellets and whilst data shows that it is harmless to human health, conventional water treatment processes cannot remove it. Putting in new treatment isn’t an option at the moment either. Put simply, it doesn’t exist on a scale sufficiently large enough to be able to treat the quantities of water needed in our region.

Up and coming legislation will mean that shortly, UK PLc could face action under the Water Framework Directive (WFD) if the trend for pesticides in raw waters isn’t addressed. Fines – into six figures per day – are quoted as the potential penalty for Government unless the quality and ecological status of UK raw water improves. Furthermore, water that contains increasing levels of pesticides – even if they can be removed by treatment – is classed as deteriorating under the WFD. This places restrictions on where it can be moved to which may mean it can’t be piped between areas freely. This could impact on our ability as a country to address the future issues we know we will face around water security.

But we can’t just blame farmers. They can’t operate without pesticides – crop loss would be too great. However they do have options when it comes to issues such as slugs – one of which is to move to a slug pellet made from the less soluble ferric phosphate.

So how do we make that switch?

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Slugs can devastate a crop

Most of us get paid monthly. However, if your income was reliant on growing a crop – and you wouldn’t know how well it had grown or what quality your yield was until many months after you had planted it – how nervous might you be if somebody tried to get you to change the tried and tested way in which you had always grown it? Especially if the people who were asking you were not themselves farmers! Oh, and did I mention that the alternative is also more expensive? It’s a big ask.

Slug it Out shares this risk by covering the cost difference, providing information on the efficacy of the ferric product as well as wider technical advice, building relationships face to face between our Catchment Advisory Team and our farming neighbours and working with pesticide manufactures and agronomists. I’m delighted to report that 100% of farmers within our areas of interest signed up to switch to ferric in 2015.

The trial has provided some interesting results. Product substitution was shown as effective at controlling metaldehyde in raw waters in simple landscapes. As you increase the complexity of the landscape however, it’s not just agriculture that starts to become important. The findings show that gardens and allotments and even industrial business also make key contributions to metaldehyde levels in raw waters. Pesticide storage and handling practices within the farm yard are also significant. The data also suggests that metaldehyde is persisting in the environment for far longer than first thought – especially when in solution – and further understanding is needed on this.

What is clear is that all of this additional information wouldn’t have been possible without the engagement of the farmers within the trial. It’s also clear

Grafham Water in the Slug It Out trial area

Grafham Water in the Slug It Out trial area

that this information will be crucial for both us and agriculture when it comes to planning the future strategies around pesticides for the region. Metaldehyde bans have been muted by Regulators but we believe that outright bans are unnecessary. The risk is that without trials like this the information wont be there to design strategies that include the right level of detail. If we don’t work together now to address the data gap – we are only all going to have ourselves to blame if we end up with something unworkable in future!

Slug it Out will re-launch for 2016 and we plan to widen the area of interest at the same time. Watch this space…