DEFRA to tighten farm nitrate controls

The Government is facing possible EU legal action over implementation of the 1991 nitrates Directive

The Directive requires member states to designate nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs) in areas where nitrate levels in surface or groundwaters approach or exceed 50mg/l, and to draw up action programmes to control agricultural nitrate pollution.

The UK has already been prosecuted for inadequately implementing the Directive and forced to increase the coverage of NVZs, designating more than half of England.

Nonetheless, last year the Commission questioned whether the Government’s action programme was sufficient to meet the Directive’s requirements. The Environment Department (DEFRA) attempted to address these concerns with further proposals in September, but the Commission has again demanded more robust action.

As part of its review of measures to combat nitrate pollution, DEFRA is now holding farmer workshops on possible revisions to the action programme ahead of a formal consultation in February. Options include:

  • Tightening the organic loading limit at all NVZs to 170 kg/ha/year, rather than the 210kg/ha/year that applies to many designations.
  • Longer closed periods and extensions of the periods to all manures and soils. This will require much greater storage capacity for slurry on farms.
  • Limits on nitrogen fertilisers.

Farmers will be expected to prepare nitrogen management plans and demonstrate that they have not exceeded each crop’s nitrogen requirement. DEFRA also plans to beef up fertiliser application procedures to prevent run-off.

The revised action plan will come into force in July and will feed into the water framework Directive’s programme to be in place by 2009.

Look out for more on nitrates in December’s ENDS Report.

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