Actions underway to clean up Scotland’s busiest bathing water

  07 June 2021
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is collaborating with partners to clean up the water at one of Scotland’s busiest bathing waters, Ayr (South Beach) ahead of a unique ‘staycation’ summer.
  • SEPA and Scottish Water, supported by South Ayrshire Council, are working to improve Ayr (South Beach) bathing water quality
  • £10 million of investments by Scottish Water in additional water treatment works for the start of this season
  • Targeted improvement actions are in place to reduce pollution in rivers feeding into Ayr (South Beach) bathing water from agricultural land and sewer networks
  • Keep Scotland Beautiful’s ‘My Beach, Your Beach’ encourages beach users to take better care of sand and sea
  • Ayr (South) must achieve a minimum of ‘Sufficient’ by the end of 2021 to remain a designated bathing water.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is collaborating with partners to clean up the water at one of Scotland’s busiest bathing waters, Ayr (South Beach) ahead of a unique ‘staycation’ summer. 

Having been classified as ‘Poor’ for four years in a row, 2021 is a key year for Ayr (South Beach), as another poor classification would result in the loss of its designated bathing water status, meaning it would no longer benefit from SEPA water sampling and water quality predictions. While the beach would remain open and people could still go into the water, advice against bathing would be displayed. SEPA, along with Scottish Water and supported by South Ayrshire Council, are working to try to ensure that situation is avoided.

The aim of these efforts is to reduce pollution in local rivers, improve water quality and protect the bathing water to benefit visitors and local communities alike. These works come as part of a targeted improvement plan, which has been in place since 2019 to drive investment and infrastructure development while simultaneously managing any ongoing pressures from rural diffuse pollution.

Scotland has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but also experiences some of the wettest weather in Europe. This can have an impact on water quality at bathing waters due to contaminants being washed into rivers from agricultural land and spills following heavy rain to avoid sewers backing up.

Terry A’Hearn, Chief Executive of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) said:

“Improving Scotland’s water environment is a key priority for SEPA, and that includes the bathing waters so many of us enjoy. All across Scotland, we seek to protect watercourses through licensing, inspection and regulation of discharge, advice and guidance to the public, industry, developers and local authorities, and pollution incident response.

“We know that Ayr (South Beach) is subject to a number of complex challenges, and that other local watercourses which feed into it receive bacterial input from a number of sources. That’s why we’re leading efforts to improve local watercourses, including through engagement with the farming community, which is yielding impressive results.

“The work being undertaken is an exemplar of the bold and timely action that can come from partnership working. We will continue to work with our partners to raise or maintain the state of bathing waters all across Scotland, so that summer visits to the beach can be safer and more enjoyable for us all.”

Strong engagement from farmers

SEPA has had strong, positive engagement from farmers and land managers in the area - which has resulted in over 90% reaching full compliance by ensuring their practices are not affecting watercourses. It is hoped that further improvements to the catchment through simple practical steps will further benefit the bathing water at Ayr (South Beach), which relies partly on the water quality in both the Rivers Ayr and Doon.   

The agency has been working with local farmers and NFUS since 2010 through face-to-face visits, workshops and information sessions - resulting in many farmers adopting new practices and spending significant sums of money on additional slurry storage facilities, fencing off entire stretches of watercourses to exclude livestock, and installing alternative means of livestock watering to reach compliance. In some instances, farmers have gone even further than is legally required, by planting riparian zones which move their farming activities further away from the water’s edge. 

Looking for a line here on the investment by farmers and SG?

Visits being carried out by SEPA officers in 2021 are targeted at the handful of farms which are still not fully compliant.

Scottish Water investment

While SEPA has continued to undertake pre-season inspections at key assets and locations across the catchment, which will continue throughout the season, almost £10 million has been spent by Scottish Water in its latest round of funding in the area on a series of actions to help protect the bathing water status of Ayr (South).

Additional waste water storage is being installed to reduce the volume of spills across the catchment, with work, supported by SEPA officers, at Belleisle, Drongan and Mauchline designed to ensure that more waste water can be stored and treated before release after storm conditions. Scottish Water is also taking action to improve the performance of the sewer network and, with SEPA support, is developing and licensing temporary treatment systems.

A longer-term, phased approach with a range of interventions to improve bathing water quality is also being undertaken. This includes a feasibility study to understand the benefit of connecting private septic tanks to the mains sewer network.

Simon Parsons, Director of Strategic Customer Service Planning said:  

“We have worked closely with SEPA and South Ayrshire Council to advance £10m of investment in our waste water infrastructure that serves the area. This includes the installation of more storm storage and improved treatment capability at a number of our sites. We understand how important it is for us to play our part to ensure the best possible water quality is achieved.”

South Ayrshire Council

Councillor Ian Cochrane, Environment Portfolio Holder for South Ayrshire Council said:

“I welcome the work undertaken by both SEPA and Scottish Water to improve the water quality at Ayr (South Beach). Their efforts are very timely as we look to welcome thousands of people back to our beaches this summer. We will continue to support both SEPA and Scottish Water in their work, to ensure all our beaches offer the best experience possible.”

Protecting sand and sea

Visitors to Scotland’s beaches can also help to protect our water environment. SEPA supports Keep Scotland Beautiful’s (KSB) My Beach, Your Beach campaign, which is running at Ayr (South Beach) this season. Waste from animals or litter isn’t just unsightly but can have a negative impact on the water quality so we encourage the public to follow KSB’s advice to take litter home, to clean up after their dogs and to avoid feeding the gulls, ensuring a good beach experience for everyone who visits. Find out more at

Previous successes

Previous SEPA improvement projects have been successful, such as for Heads of Ayr, which was rated as ‘Excellent’ in 2019 having been rated ‘Poor’ for the four preceding years. Improvements were also seen in the 2019 ratings at other previously poor locations including Sandyhills, Cruden Bay and Kinghorn Harbour.

Key year for Ayr South

Scotland’s Bathing Water season runs from 1 June to 15 September every year, and throughout the summer months SEPA specialists take water samples at 85 designated Bathing Waters across Scotland to test for levels of bacteria. Four year rolling results are used to give each bathing water a designation, which then stands for the next year’s bathing water season.

Ayr (South Beach) has been a designated bathing water since 1987 and is located at the end of a catchment affected by a diverse range of land uses, including agriculture, industrial activities, a large seaside town beside the beach and dispersed populations in many nearby smaller towns. Whilst bathing water quality is acceptable on the majority of days during the season, there are points where it has been affected by a series of complex local factors.

Although Ayr (South Beach) bathing water was classified ‘Poor’ overall, in 2019 over 70% of the sample days showed acceptable water quality. SEPA provides daily real-time information and advice to bathers and beach users on predicted water quality via its website and the electronic beach sign will be operational later in the season.  


  • A Bathing Water risks de-designation if it has five consecutive poor overall water quality classifications. As there were no classifications for 2020, the designations set after the 2019 season have been rolled over to this year.
  • Bathing Water quality is variable on a day-to-day basis, with poorer water quality mainly driven by rainfall. Bathing is not advised during, or one to two days after, heavy rainfall as there is always a risk that water pollution may occur.
  • More information on Bathing Waters can be found at Bathing Waters: Homepage (