EA to clarify manure spreading rules under pressure from lawyers

The Environment Agency (EA) has agreed to clarify the wording of a regulatory position statement (RPS) it published in August, which relaxes the enforcement around manure spreading, after lawyers argued that the move was unlawful and would increase water pollution.

Under the RPS, published in August, farmers will be permitted to spread organic slurry or manure this autumn, even if it exceeds the needs of the soil or crop on that land.

The RPS, which runs until February 2022, stipulates that the RPS is only valid so long as there is no water pollution risk but Salmon and Trout Conservation believes surplus nitrogen from the manure will inevitably end up in watercourses.

Lawyers acting on behalf of the conservation charity wrote to the EA in September arguing that the RPS disapplied an offence under the Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018, which the regulator could not lawfully do.

In a response, seen by ENDS, the EA denied it was disapplying the regulation but that it instead “identifies a particular enforcement approach provided stringent conditions are met”.

However, it said it proposed to amend the RPS “to make clear that it does not alter the legal obligations on the land manager as set out in the regulations but that enforcement action will not normally be taken provided the conditions of the RPS are met”.

The EA goes on to state that “until now the industry has believed that its existing practices met soil and crop needs and have continued to spread manures with high readily available nitrogen in the autumn when there is no need for seedbed nitrogen”.

However, the Salmon and Trout Conservation contest this.

Guy Linley-Adams, a solicitor for the group, said 36 years ago the 1985 Code of Good Agricultural Practice stated that “application rates of fertilisers should take account of crop requirements and the nutrients provided by organic manures to the soil. To reduce the danger of nutrients being leached out and polluting relevant waters, fertilisers should not exceed maximum ADAS recommended rates.”

The code also states: “Nitrogenous fertilisers should only be applied at times when the crops can utilise the nitrogen.”

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“What does the agency think is likely to happen with highly readily available nitrogen when it is spread in the autumn when there is no need for seedbed nitrogen?  There is only one place it is going to end up,” said Linley-Adams.

“There is a very, very long history, going back over 30 years, of trying to persuade and encourage farmers to deal with organic manures properly, requiring slurry storage to be adequate and the like. And many have responded positively and, by and large, do the right thing. But a significant minority does not. By issuing this RPS, the agency is sending completely the wrong message to those farmers who refuse to adapt and invest to protect the aquatic environment,” he added.

The EA is due to publish new guidance this autumn on the regulation of the biowaste sector, after it said in July it was concerned that operators spreading manure on farm land for food production, “lacked awareness of existing legal obligations”.

The EA has been approached for comment.