The Environment Department (DEFRA) has been under threat of legal action from the European Commission for four years over its implementation of the 1991 Directive on nitrates in agriculture.
In 2003 it received a reasoned opinion from the Commission - a final warning of its intention to prosecute (ENDS Report 340, p 10 ). The threat came only months after a raft of new measures had been imposed on farmers to tighten implementation.
The Directive requires the establishment of nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs) where nitrates exceed, or threaten to exceed, the 50-milligram per litre drinking water limit. Within these zones the government must impose measures to reduce nitrate losses, such as limiting fertiliser and manure applications and banning applications in autumn and early winter when rainfall is most likely to wash nitrate from the soil.
The dispute with the Commission is likely to cover both the area of NVZ designation - currently only 55% of England - and the measures imposed within them.
DEFRA has been working on proposals to tighten implementation and expects to put out a consultation document in the spring. I has already held meetings with farmers around the country to discuss options.
National Farmers’ Union nitrates consultant Michael Payne said: "We are concerned that farmers don’t realise the severity and extent of what DEFRA is proposing."
Proposals include reducing the nitrate application limit to grassland from 250 kilograms per hectare to 170kg/ha and an increase in the period during which slurry or manure spreading is banned. This withholding period is now likely to apply in all NVZs, not just in areas with light and sandy soils likely to leach nitrate. It may also extend to five or six months of the year.
"Without any extension of the NVZs there will be a five-fold increase in slurry storage requirements," Mr Payne explained. The impacts are most likely to be felt by the dairy industry, which will have greatest need of new storage facilities and is also unlikely to be able to meet the cost.
Andrew Watson of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants, representing agricultural advisors, told a meeting at Coventry in January that he expected all of England to become an NVZ.
The opinion was widely reported in the farming press but DEFRA stressed this was just one of the options to be considered.
Another option could be to tailor implementation to rainfall. In wetter areas, nitrate losses are less likely to breach the 50mg/l limit and application limits can be more relaxed. The driest areas - East Anglia and Yorkshire for instance - would need the tightest limits.