Tighter rules on slurry spreading near protected sites mooted by senior EA official

Tighter rules for farmers on spreading organic matter near protected sites have been suggested as a possibility by a senior Environment Agency (EA) official to ease the development logjam created by nutrient neutrality requirements.

Speaking to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) on Tuesday, Kevin Austin, the EA’s deputy director for agriculture said that the agency was “under a lot of pressure in terms of the nutrient neutrality question”, and that there “might be a case for slightly tighter rules [on spreading organic matter] where you’ve got particularly geographical and place-based problems”. 

The comments were made to a panel of MPs seeking clarification on the EA’s position on slurry spreading in the winter months, following the publication of a regulatory position statement (RPS) last August, which relaxed enforcement rules around manure spreading until February 2022. 

Although the RPS stated that spreading must not cause water pollution, its publication caused a backlash from conservation groups, who said that the relaxation in enforcement would inevitably cause more diffuse water pollution.  

According to the panel, failure of communication to farmers - about both the RPS and the requirements of the 2018 Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations, known as the Farming Rules for Water - had led to widespread confusion amongst the sector about what organic matter they can and cannot spread, and when.  

In response, John Leyland, EA executive director said: “There is nothing in EA’s position which bans use of organic soil materials, manures, in the autumn when there is a crop need.”

He added later in the committee meeting that “this isn’t the EA against farmers…this is the EA against water pollution”.

However, Leyland and Austin both conceded that there needed to be clearer communication of what is expected of farmers.

Austin told the panel that the EA was working on new, clearer information on the EA’s “risk-based approach” to slurry and manure spreading for farmers which he expected to be published in the early spring of this year. He said that this approach would likely allow farmers to spread some organic matter in the autumn, but this would likely be lower readily-available nitrogen manures, as opposed to “high risk slurries”. 

“That’s the direction of travel we’d like to see the industry moving in,” he said. 

When asked what the EA expected farmers to do with organic matter that they cannot spread, incinerate, or store indefinitely, Austin said that officials were “having this conversation” behind the scenes. 

He added that the EA carries out just 350 farm visits for water a year, but hoped that this would increase ten-fold if the required funding boost was carried over to the new financial year. While discussing farm visits, which are designed to check the regulations are being enforced, he told that panel that the vast majority of problems EA officers found related to failures of “basic professionalism”.

“They haven’t done their soil tests, haven’t got a nutrient plan in place - this is basic professionalism. They are the main flaws we have been picking up when it comes to Farming Rules for Water”. 

Commenting on the RPS last year, Guy Linley-Adams, a solicitor for the Salmon and Trout Conservation noted that farmers had been advised by the government for nearly 40 years that manure should not be spread when crops and soils do not require it.

“That’s enough of a notice period for anyone,” he said. “Farmers have had ample time to prepare for the rules and get their manure management in order – and many have done exactly that – so it is not unreasonable to expect the EA to enforce the law against those who have not.”

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