Aid to tackle farm pollution mooted by agencies

A report produced for English Nature and the Environment Agency has unveiled the most specific proposals yet to tackle diffuse water pollution from agriculture.1 The report proposes a two-tier support package for farmers, including a general subsidy for better environmental management with a price tag of up to £28 million over four years.

Over the past couple of years the political temperature over diffuse pollution from farms has risen considerably. Since the Curry report on the sustainability of farming in February 2002, DEFRA, the Agency and English Nature have been responsible for a library of reports on farm pollution (ENDS Report 340, p 51 ).

The latest report was written by consultants from the Institute for European Environmental Policy and ADAS. It finds that diffuse farm pollution in England is likely to grow more severe while the political pressure to tackle it will become increasingly intense.

Policy drivers prompting action on diffuse pollution include EU Directives on habitats, water and nitrates and the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. The water framework Directive requires the achievement of "good" ecological status by 2015 (see pp 22-25 ).

The report's authors considered practical measures to reduce pollution on different types of farms in different areas. They identified a series of potential measures, modelled the likely costs to farmers, discussed them with farming groups and worked out suggested policy packages and grant schemes.

The report recommends a range of general measures to be used on farms across the country depending on local conditions:

  • Reduction in nitrogen and phosphate inputs via fertilisers and livestock diets, and ensuring that manures are included in nutrient budgets to avoid excessive inputs.

  • Greater precision in applying fertilisers, paying careful attention to timing and rates.

  • More careful use of manures, including provision of adequate storage capacity to ensure applications are made under suitable weather conditions.

  • Measures to prevent soil erosion such as winter cover, special cultivation methods, buffer strips and silt traps in drains.

  • Fencing to prevent poaching and erosion of river banks by livestock.

    Measures to reduce nitrogen leaching were required across "very broad areas", the report concluded - casting doubt on the Government's controversial decision to limit nitrate vulnerable zone (NVZ) designations to only 55% of England last year. The Agency's advice was that 80-100% should be designated (ENDS Report 330, pp 45-46 ).

    The Government's implementation of the EU nitrates Directive is likely to be challenged in the European Court and in any case, recent research shows that the measures imposed in NVZs are insufficient to achieve drinking water nitrate standards in many areas (ENDS Reports 340, p 10  and 343, p 8 ).

    The report suggests that the writing is on the wall for the many farmers who have so far escaped nitrate controls. It talks of "the likely extension of NVZs across most of England in the near future".

    In contrast to nitrate, measures to control phosphate pollution and silt - which often carries phosphate - can be limited to high-risk situations, the report finds.

    In addition to the broad measures above, the report proposes a more detailed package, targeted at priority catchments. The measures would be specific to particular situations but might include turning some fields over to pasture or avoiding crops like potatoes or maize which are likely to exacerbate erosion. On livestock farms, reductions in stocking densities might be needed.

    Reductions in stocking densities and changes in crop types are among the more expensive measures costed in the report. Better nutrient budgeting would save costs by reducing the need for fertilisers.

    Barriers to the uptake of diffuse pollution abatement methods include scepticism, ignorance of the scale of the problem, lack of incentives to act, lack of knowledge of nutrient planning and the perceived risk of yield loss for high-value crops.

    Considering experience in the UK and abroad of getting farmers involved in environmental initiatives, the report proposes detailed advice to farmers and demonstration on a local level of the methods involved. Local flexibility in the choice of measures is also important, and the level of compulsion should be proportional to the severity of the pollution problem.

    The report suggest a dual focus approach to generate minor changes across the country and fundamental change in priority areas. Voluntary "farmer-owned" initiatives could achieve such changes where there are economic and environmental benefits and a prospect of future regulation.

    In priority catchments a "high profile carrot and stick approach" would be needed to raise standards, the report concludes. But it advises that capital investment and farmers' planning and management time need to be factored into grant aid schemes. Locally tailored packages and local facilitators will also be a key to success.

    The report envisages a "basic plan" for widespread application and a "plan plus" for priority areas. The basic plan requires every farmer to produce nutrient and soil conservation plans, based on a farm map. The plans would have to be agreed with a qualified advisor and run for at least five years.

    A grant would be paid up front and then annually on a per hectare basis. The national cost is estimated at £13.5-28 million over four years, and it is envisaged that this would form part of the "broad and shallow" agri-environment scheme recommended in the Curry report.

    The "plan plus" is estimated to cost some £0.25 million in the first year and up to £6 million after five years, assuming it would cover some 40 priority areas of 6,000 hectares or 50 farms each. The costs would then diminish as fewer new initiatives would be needed.

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