As every farmer knows, the closed period is now in place in Northern Ireland for all organic manures and will not open again until 1st February 2018.
The closed period is a mandatory part of the EU Nitrates Directive, there is no option but to introduce one in areas where there are water quality issues. Failures to do so can result in massive fines on government or a withholding of EU funds to farmers.
The closed period was introduced with the first NI Nitrates Action Programme back in 2007. However this aspect was phased in until farmers had put in place the minimum storage requirement of 22 weeks (26 weeks for pig and poultry) with all Northern Ireland farmers first having to comply with the closed period in October 2009. Each region or country can determine their dates but these must be based on science and agreed by the European Commission.
The whole of Northern Ireland is designated under the Nitrates Action Programme due to the extent of our water quality issues. However other regions e.g. Scotland has zones designated and this is why farmers outside of these zones may not have a closed period in force or the dates may be different to Northern Ireland.
Discussion on the NI Nitrates Action Programme started around 2002 and the UFU fought endlessly at this time to protect the needs of local farmers. The closed period is one of the most controversial aspects of the Nitrates Action Programme and the UFU lobbied the department and EC during this time to try and ensure some common sense prevailed. The union has always argued that you cannot farm by calendar dates and this year clearly showed this.
The main aim of the closed period is to protect water quality. Spreading slurry, litter and manure during months when there is little growth leads to more run off of nutrients which impacts on water quality but also results in the loss of valuable nutrients to the farm. The current dates are based on research balancing the risk of run off to water and the likelihood of nutrient uptake. Initially a much longer closed period was proposed by the department and Europe but the UFU fought hard to provide evidence to reduce the dates to the current closed period.
Every four years the whole Nitrates Action Programme is reviewed by the EC alongside water quality information and every four years there is a battle to ensure that measures such as the closed period or storage requirements are not extended. Since the closed period was introduced there has been improvements to our water quality; however there are still some problem areas.
In Northern Ireland we are fortunate to have research being carried out by AFBI and often supported by the industry through the likes of Agri-Search and Pig Re-Gen to support farmers and ensure that we have scientific evidence to justify our current position. This has helped ensure that the EC do not impose more onerous measures on the industry.
NI is about to start the review of the third NI Nitrates Action Programme (NAP) with a new NAP starting in 2019 just before the UK leaves the EU. Despite Brexit, the rules and regulations will still remain initially and there will still be a need to show that the environment is protected but, perhaps there are opportunities to develop rules which are even more appropriate to the Northern Ireland conditions.
The start of the closed period this year proved difficult and almost impossible for some farmers in Northern Ireland to comply with, due to the difficult ground and weather conditions, crop and silage not cut and cattle being housed early. During the negotiations on the NAP, the UFU insisted that an exceptional circumstances clause was included to help in difficult years. This clause is not available in other UK regions or ROI making it more difficult. This covers exceptional circumstances when, through no fault of their own, farmers cannot fully comply with the rules.
However, the reasonable excuse clause is a last resort, no farmer wants to risk their basic payment by spreading slurry during the closed period but some farmers this year have been left with no other choice. If farmers are forced to spread over the coming months they do not have to notify DAERA or NIEA before spreading but detailed records must be kept showing; how they have managed their slurry before and during the closed period, weather and ground conditions, proving they have enough storage, and have exhausted all other options such as seeking storage elsewhere. Those forced to spread slurry during the closed period should take extra precautions to prevent run off.
The UFU has created a template that farmers can use to record this information and this must be available if you are inspected by NIEA. This is available from UFU Offices and UFU staff can assist members with completing this.