THE threat of swingeing new charges looks set to kill off one of the most historic watercress beds in Hampshire.

Jon Marshall has ceased cultivating the beds at Itchen Stoke, near Alresford after the Environment Agency set a bill for £3,000 to cover the risk of pollution from his operation.

As a result the beds have not been cultivated this year.

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Landowner Charles Ranald said: “It looks like a disaster area. Because of the threat of the charges no-one wants to rent it. I’m heartbroken that it’s like this after 150-200 years.”

The land is among the last to be farmed in a non-mechanised way, unlike the large beds run by the Watercress Company and Geest.

Mr Ranald said he still hopes other people may be interested in taking over the half-acre plot.

“I don’t want to abandon them, they have been going for 150 years. I very much want to carry on. They are a part of Hampshire heritage. The land is too small and very steep banks to have machines so it has to be done in a traditional way.”

Directives from the EU means farmers are looking at costs of around £1,500 to make the beds at Itchen Stoke ‘compliant’, including creating a settlement pond for filtering water before it’s discharged into the river. A licence is £900 and there is an annual fee for a permit to discharge the water of £620.

In a statement, the Environment Agency said: “We are working with local watercress farms in the River Itchen catchment to reduce the level of nutrients they discharge in order to improve water quality and protect the river, whilst not being over burdensome on businesses and the rural economy.

“Watercress farms that do not currently have a permit to discharge their waste water to the Itchen will be required to have one, including limits on their use of phosphates. Similarly, in cases where some watercress farms already have a permit we will modify those to introduce limits to their discharge of phosphates.”

The agency was asked to comment on how a tiny operation like that at Itchen Stoke could be harmful but a spokesman did not want to add to the statement.

Speaking earlier this year, Jon Marshall said: “Only three of us do it traditionally around here. It’s going to kill the trade. If we do not carry on, you won’t see bunches of watercress anymore, it will all be from massive farms.

“I feel like I’m being squeezed out of business. Big farms can afford this, I can’t.”