The Water Sensitive Farming Initiative: A case study

Organisation: Norfolk Rivers Trust

Location: Broadland Rivers, Cam and Ely Ouse, North Norfolk and North West Norfolk catchments

Type: Case Studies & Projects

Link: Visit Website

Water Sensitive Farming is a collaborative initiative between Norfolk Rivers Trust and the Broadland Rivers and Cam and Ely Ouse catchment partnerships.

Key partners include: The Rivers Trust, WWF, Coca-Cola Great Britain, Coca-Cola European Partners, Broadland Catchment Partnership, Cam and Ely Ouse Catchment Partnership, Topsoil.

WSF has been funded by the Coca-Cola and WWF Freshwater Partnership since 2012.

Water Sensitive Farming (WSF) is an initiative that delivers benefits for water resources, as well as for the wider environment, farm businesses and supply chains.

Norfolk Rivers Trust farm advisers run the day-to-day delivery of WSF, which involves working closely with farmers to develop flexible and targeted soil and water-focused solutions that are tailored to individual needs.

The project operates at a catchment scale, mainly in the Broadland Rivers and Cam and Ely Ouse catchments, but also extends into the North Norfolk and North West Norfolk catchments.

Norfolk is one of the driest regions in the UK and is also an important area for food production. The combined impact of intensive agriculture, climate breakdown and increasing demand for water, means that over-abstraction and water pollution is a real threat to the local water environment. Furthermore, 15% of the world’s internationally important chalk streams are found in Norfolk.

Therefore, this project is crucial for encouraging sustainable farming practices that promote soil health and consequently improve water quality and the efficient use of water.

WSF work is targeted using a source-pathway-receptor approach based on a combination of local knowledge, modelling and mapping techniques. Locations are identified that pose the greatest risk, where there is poor management and where soil health can be improved i.e. high sediment supply, high soil moisture content, proximity to river channels and apparent connectivity to the rest of the catchment (roads or tramlines).

Farm visits are then conducted in which an adviser and farmer undertake a joint walkover to discuss and identify opportunities for improvement. Following the visit, a farm report is produced as feedback for the farmer. This contains suggestions for improvements and explains how WSF might support these changes in farming practice/interventions i.e. through grant funding and project management.

Suggested measures can include land management practices that reduce run-off and improve infiltration e.g. cover cropping, creating buffer strips, ditch management, disrupting tramlines and implementing controlled trafficking etc. Other options focus on ‘slowing the flow’ by capturing and preventing run-off from leaving fields e.g. moving high-risk gateways, bunding field corners and creating silt traps/farm wetlands.

All interventions are measured to quantify the replenish volume that can be attributed to each intervention (the water that is returned to the environment) using Replenish methodology (a model developed by Cranfield University).


An example of a farm-scale project:

Three silt traps were installed in 2016 on farmland belonging to the Salle Estate.

The newly installed traps capture and slow down polluted run-off from eroded road verges and a sugar beet pad, which enables the sediment and suspended solids to settle out and water to percolate into the ground. The remaining clearer water will discharge to the River Blackwater.

Following installation, various monitoring projects have been carried out to assess the effectiveness of these interventions, as well as to determine their potential as a water resources measure. For example, sediment source apportionment results found that sediment inputs to the Blackwater from road verges were significantly lower post-silt trap, and the volume of sediment contributed by topsoil was significantly lower too.

These 3 traps were estimated to supply a total of 14,437,845 litres of water back to the environment.

WSF farm advisers also run farmer knowledge-exchange workshops and link these with other advisers when possible, and take part in collaborative monitoring trials such as the run-off trials at the Elveden Estate to investigate measures for retaining water in potato fields and reduce run-off after heavy rainfall events.

Environmental benefits:

  • Improved water quality in river – a reduction in nutrient and sediment inputs to the water environment. This is confirmed visually, and through other measures such as sediment fingerprint sampling, P and N tests and turbidity monitoring.
  • Improved soil health – identified by carrying out VESS surveys and worm counts – and therefore, an improvement in water holding capacity.
  • Potential flood alleviation and ‘slow the flow’ – water is captured and allowed to percolate, and sedimentation in watercourses is reduced.

Social benefits:

  • Educational and learning opportunities
  • WSF-led knowledge-exchange workshops are run for farmers, young farming students and land managers. These involve guest speakers, farm walkovers and practical demonstrations.
  • Delivery sites provide an excellent opportunity for holding knowledge-exchange events. For example, as part of the ‘Innovative ways to improve soil, water and profits’ workshop, farmers were taken to see the silt traps installed at the Salle Estate in Norfolk.
  • Where delivery is in a visible public location, interpretation boards have been created to explain the work and educate the public about water sensitive farming measures.

Economic benefits:

  • Increased farm business efficiency – capturing nutrients and sediment before they leave a farm will reduce input costs for the farmer, in terms of fertiliser and pesticide purchase, as well as fuel or machinery and labour costs. Sediment can be returned to the land as valuable topsoil.
  • Thousands of tourists visit Norfolk each year to enjoy its chalk streams and the Broads National Park. This tourism is very important for the local economy. Therefore, keeping the water and aquatic habitat clean is important for the health and amenity of the area.
  • Reducing nutrient and sediment inputs to rivers can reduce the cost of water treatment.
  • Reducing flood risk can reduce costs for farmers/landowners as they will not be subjected to flood liability charges, and householders and local businesses will not be subjected to the costs associated with flood damage e.g. loss of business and repair.


  • Continuity and long-term funding is essential for farm advisers to develop constructive and trusted relationships with farmers and landowners.
  • Several visits and points of contact are generally required in order to deliver engagement/change in practice.
  • Tailoring advice and support is crucial for the initiative to achieve its aims and be successful.
  • Facilitating access to innovative equipment such as the Creyke Wheel Track Roller and the Earthwake Wonder Wheel has been a good engagement tool.
  • Taking an integrated catchment based approach has maximised environmental benefits, expertise and work impact e.g. running events in partnership with other advisory agencies and conducting joint farm walkovers.

Some videos showing the project:

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