EA relaxes manure and slurry spreading enforcement rules until 2022

The Environment Agency (EA) has relaxed enforcement rules around manure spreading until February 2022, though it says water pollution will still have to be mitigated against.

The Environment Agency has relaxed enforcement rules around manure spreading until February 2022. Photograph: Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

Farmers will be permitted to spread organic slurry or manure in autumn, even if it may exceed the needs of the soil or crop on that land, so long as there is no water pollution risk according to a new regulatory position statement (RPS).

The guidance says land managers must take into account risks to water from nitrogen and phosphorus when planning nutrient application, and that applying organic material as a means of disposal will be in breach of the rules. 

It also says that mitigation action must be taken where there is a significant risk to water, including reviewing the need for organic material, adjustment of application rates, considering alternative fields, or the export of manures.

Not one river or lake in England meets a legal water quality standard threshold, according to data released by DEFRA last year.

Despite the relaxation, farmers will still have to explain why they need to apply organic manures in the autumn. 

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has responded negatively to this, with its deputy president Stuart Roberts telling Farming UK he is “deeply disappointed with the content of the statement by the EA”. He added that it “sets an idealistic and impractical barrier in many farming situations”. 

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents approximately 28,000 landowners and land managers, has expressed frustration with the requirement to have to justify applying organic material, and says that the latest guidance is “likely to have a big impact on many businesses, both practically and economically, with little time to adapt plans for this year”.  

The Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations were introduced in 2018 - known as the Farming Rules for Water (FRfW).  Rule 1 relates to planning nutrient applications and assessing pollution risk, and according to a briefing from standards body FACTS, in recent months Rule 1 compliance has been “a particular challenge”.

This updated guidance also follows “a challenging time of discussion” between the EA and the agricultural sector according to BASIS, an independent standards and auditing organisation for the pesticide, fertiliser and allied industries.

Susan Twining, CLA’s chief land use policy adviser said: “Of course, water quality should never be compromised. A healthy water environment is key to ensuring wildlife can flourish, and everyone has their part to play.”

However, she continued, “further thought is urgently needed on how to balance the value of organic material for building soil health and benefits for carbon sequestration, reducing reliance on manufactured fertilisers, improving water holding capacity and associated flood risk.”

The RPS comes a week after the EA said it is concerned that biowaste operators, many of whom produce sewage sludge that is spread on farm land for food production, “lack awareness of existing legal obligations”. 

The EA ran a consultation on appropriate measures for the sector last summer, based on proposed guidance it released at the time.

In its response document, the EA said that some respondents “appeared unclear about waste characterisation and duty of care requirements”.