UFU in call for ‘common sense’

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The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) is calling on the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) to take a “common sense approach” and remove the ammonia measures from its proposed changes to the Nitrates Action Programme (NAP).

UFU president, Ivor Ferguson says while ammonia is a crucial issue for the farming industry, bolting it on to Northern Ireland’s nitrates programme is nonsensical and counterproductive.

The comments were made following the UFU’s February Executive meeting where the organisation’s response to DAERA’s consultation on the EU Commission’s review of Northern Ireland’s Nitrates Action Programme was discussed.

“We are seriously concerned and cannot accept the majority of the proposed changes to Northern Ireland’s current Nitrates Action Programme. If implemented they will have a hugely detrimental effect on local farm businesses and, in fact, the entire agri-food industry as a whole,” said Mr Ferguson.

The UFU says the suggestion to cover new outdoor slurry stores from 1 January 2020 and existing stores by 2022 is just one example of the totally unworkable proposals coming from DAERA.

Mr Ferguson said ultimately it will all add additional cost, paperwork and frustration to farm family businesses.

“This is not acceptable. It is vital that NI secures an approved Nitrates derogation but we must not cripple the industry in the process,” he stressed.

DAERA have also included a number of measures relating to ammonia in the proposals, something the UFU fiercely opposes.

“DAERA have attempted to slip in measures aimed at tackling ammonia such as the covering of tanks, banning of urea and phasing out of splash plates,” Ferguson argued.

“Work is already underway on an Ammonia Action Plan and these measures are better discussed and consulted on as part of that process. This sneaky, back door approach; when civil servants take liberties in the absence of government ministers; is totally unacceptable,” said the UFU president.

The UFU says farmers recognise the importance of caring for the environment but don’t get enough credit for the work they already do.

Mr Ferguson continued: “Farmers work day in and day out looking after the countryside. They have had to adopt complicated programmes and invest significant amounts to comply with UK and EU regulations that have helped to improve water quality over the last decade.”

While farmers accept more needs to be done, Mr Ferguson says rigid systems with ruthless enforcement will not work. He concluded: “There are mountains of evidence to show that catchment-based approaches; working with local farmers and other partners; is the best way to achieve results. The Sustainable Agriculture Land Management Strategy has recommended this as a way forward and I would strongly encourage DAERA to embrace this method when it comes to tackling water quality and ammonia.”

The UFU has detailed its concerns and opposition to the proposals in its consultation response, which is to be submitted to the DAERA before 19 March.

Former Union President John Gilliland chaired the expert working group, which delivered Northern Ireland’s Sustainable Agriculture and Land Management Programme. His team comprised farmers, environmentalists, public officials and food processors was established to plot a sustainable way forward for the farming sector. The report contained several recommendations on how best to support productive agriculture, whilst improving environmental performance.

Speaking on behalf of the group, John Gilliland said: “We strongly believe that government should take an advocacy first approach to improving environmental management on farms.

“Providing advice and guidance to farmers on how to correct environmental issues should be the initial priority with regulation and enforcement undertaken only where they are needed. Improving the health of Northern Ireland’s agricultural soils is the central focus of our strategy.”

There is continuing concern at farm level that DAERA’s seeming intent to link presumed ammonia emission levels to future farm building and business development plans could significantly stymie the growth of production agriculture in Northern Ireland.