Pragmatic approach on nitrates welcome

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The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) says that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has ‘come to its senses on nitrates’ and has adopted a more pragmatic approach to Northern Ireland’s new Nitrates’ Action Programme (NAP).

UFU deputy president Victor Chestnutt said that the UFU fought hard against many of DAERA’s impractical and unworkable proposals.

He explained: “Many of the proposals, if implemented, would have caused significant issues on farms. Under the new programme, there will be changes and additional regulations, however, it could have been far worse for farmers.”

The comments were made following confirmation that Northern Ireland’s nitrates derogation has been renewed and a new Nitrates’ Action Programme agreed. The plans were reviewed by the EU Commission and received a unanimous approval vote by the EU Nitrates Committee.

“The nitrates derogation is important for many grassland farmers here. We are pleased that this has been renewed following an independent review by the Commission and farmers now know where they stand.”

“Unfortunately, this is another issue that has been delayed and had resulted in uncertainty for many farmers because of the lack of government at Stormont,” said Mr Chestnutt.

Despite the short consultation period, all of the UFU’s 14 committees reviewed the nitrates proposals. Mr Chestnutt says members were aghast at many of the proposals, leading the organisation to fight hard, and win, against many of them.

“The suggestions to cover existing slurry stores, ban the use of urea fertiliser, and the phasing out of splash plates were totally impractical. We also secured the commitment that lower emission spreading equipment (LESSE) will only be required on cattle farms stocking over 200 livestock units or pig farms where manure nitrogen production is 20,000kg per year. Initially, DAERA had proposed 100 livestock units on cattle farms and 10,000kg on pig farms respectively,” he explained.

However, despite these wins, the UFU remain concerned there are a number of changes that will add cost and bureaucracy for more farmers.

“Even with the positive amendments to some of the original proposals, there are still new restrictions for farmers that we will continue to lobby on. DAERA need to ensure that they put in place guidance and support to help farmers to comply with the new requirements. Low emission spreading equipment is very costly.

Farmers will need a support scheme to help them transition towards using this equipment and to comply with other measures. We are urging DAERA to put an effective scheme in place quickly,” Mr Chestnutt concluded.

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader, Robin Swann MLA, has welcomed the EU’s approval for the renewal of Northern Ireland’s nitrates’ derogation.

He described nitrates derogation as ‘absolutely essential’ for Northern Ireland, adding that its importance cannot be overemphasised for a large number of local farms, so that’s why there can be a collective sigh of relief now that it has once again been secured.

He said: “DAERA were completely misguided and wrong however to try to tie together major ammonia reduction measures with the Nitrates Plan. They had wanted new restrictions such as a requirement to cover all tanks and a move towards a ban on slurry splash plates. My Party raised our objections to the Department trying to do the two things at once when we met them again last week.

“I am glad that many of those sort of the initial proposals have now been dropped; at least in the meantime. I think it quickly became apparent to the officials that there was significant opposition to not just the measures, but also to how the Department had try to shoehorn them onto a completely separate piece of work.”

“I’m glad that not only have several of the proposals been scrapped, I also welcome the fact that there have been big changes to some of the others. There is still much ambiguity however, especially as to what constitutes a large farm in relation to the slurry spreading restrictions, so it is essential that when the Department moves towards developing its ammonia plan that it listens not only to what its own officials want, but also to what industry has to say.”

Commenting on these developments, Farmers for Action’s William Taylor said: “Food has a cost and in this case the corporate influence to keep food prices down across the board particularly in chicken and pig meat production is out of control and must be addressed if nitrate and phosphate pollution is to be dealt with.”

He added: “The way to deal with this is to force the corporate food retailers, corporate food wholesalers and corporate food processors to come up with the money to send surplus mainly chicken and pig manure to N and P deficient Brazil and other countries who are exporting soya and other to Northern Ireland making us the most intensive region in the UK.”

Changes to the new NAP include the removal of ban on the use of urea chemical fertiliser; the removal of the requirement to cover existing above ground slurry stores and the requirement for larger farms to spread slurry using Low Emission Spreading Equipment (LESSE).

Commenting, a DAERA spokesperson said: “The changes we have made to the action programme, as a result of the consultation, represent a pragmatic and workable approach, whilst still progressing towards wider policy objectives. We have worked tirelessly to strike an appropriate balance between the needs of the environment, the need to comply with our legal requirements and the need to support the agri-food industry.

“This is a significant step forward in protecting the environment whilst ensuring we have a sustainable agri-food sector. The new Action Programme will help to ensure the progress that has been achieved in improving water quality in our rivers and lakes over the past 12 years continues.

“The timescale to progress these issues has been very challenging, particularly in relation to the fixed dates for the EU Nitrates Committee. However, confirmation of an approved four-year derogation has provided much needed certainty to the industry and I’m positive it will be welcomed by those affected.”