Shane Dolphin examines recent changes to the legislation surrounding the protection of water quality from pollution by agriculture.
The EU Nitrates Directive is 29 years old this month and was first adopted in 1991. Its aims
are to protect water quality across Europe by preventing nitrates from agricultural sources
leaching (polluting ground and surface waters) and by promoting the use of good farming
practices to improve water quality.
Each EU Member State is required to prepare a Nitrates Action Programmes (NAP) that
outlines the management and application of livestock manure and other fertiliser. Ireland’s
first NAP came into operation in 2006, which gave effect to the Nitrates Directive which was
supported by national regulations. Irelands fourth and current NAP was granted in 2017.
Each Member State’s NAP must include:
- a limit on the amount of livestock manure applied to the land each year
- set periods when land spreading is prohibited due to risk, and
- a set capacity levels for the storage of livestock manure.
An approved derogation (exemption) gives the opportunity to farm at higher stocking rates
(up to 250kg organic N/ha) but are subject to additional conditions designed to protect the
environment. The derogation is an important facility for more intensive farmers. In 2018,
6891 intensively stocked farmers availed of the derogation. Over 445,000 hectares are
farmed under derogation, which is 11% of Ireland’s total land area devoted to agriculture.
Over 445,000 hectares are farmed under derogation, which is 11% of Ireland’s total land
area devoted to agriculture.
In 2020 the number of derogation applications fell to a four-year low. This is a noteworthy
drop especially with the rapid expansion of dairy since the abolition of EU milk quotas in
2015. The fall in applications comes as farmers availing of the derogation face tougher
conditions following a review of the initiative, published in 2019. Tighter measures include
further strengthening the protection of watercourses, where the report states ‘’Water quality
improvements are required by approximately 50% of rivers, lakes and estuaries that are
impacted by pollution’’. According to Teagasc, recent declines in water quality and increases
in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) and Ammonia Emissions will make it more difficult to secure
future derogations. It is vital that Ireland retains the Nitrates Derogation to allow forsustainable farmers to remain intensive, but also efficient in their nitrogen management toprevent leaching into watercourses.
For intensive farmers not in derogation, many export slurry ‘on paper’ to remain under the
170kg of N limit. Quite often some of this slurry is not exported to other farms and the
potential leaching depletes our water quality. Another anomaly that is farmer-caused is
where chemical fertilizers are purchased but not accounted for properly as fertilizer by some
farmers, so ‘on paper’ the chemical fertilizer limits are not being breached. These violations
and bending of the rules make for retaining the derogation much harder for the Department
of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to negotiate in Europe. In May 2019, An Taisce stated
its belief that Ireland’s nitrates derogation is propping up the unsustainable and
environmentally damaging Foodwise 2025 strategy in a statement “without drastic measures
to reduce the pollution caused by the intensification of bovine farming on both derogation
and non-derogation farms’’.
It is vital that Ireland retains the Nitrates Derogation to allow for sustainable farmers to
remain intensive, but also efficient in their nitrogen management to prevent leaching of N
into water courses.
The 2019 Nitrates Derogation Review stated that: ‘’Careful management of livestock,
manures, slurries, and fertiliser application can significantly reduce both point and diffuse
sources of these nutrients leaching into water bodies’’. Derogation farmers must now adopt a
farm scale liming programme, all slurry on the holding from the 12th of January 2021 must
be spread by LESS (Low Emissions Slurry Spreading). There must be a reduction in Crude
Protein percentage of concentrate meal fed to dairy cows of grass, with a maximum of 15%
CP set for rations in 2021. All derogation applicants must also attend an environmental
training course. Applicants must complete a minimum of 20 grass measurements on
PastureBase Ireland. All derogation farmers must include clover in seed mixes. In October of
this year, additional rules were also published. These include the fencing-off of all
watercourses, ensuring all water troughs are 20m away from watercourses, and livestock not
being allowed to walk through watercourses. All these measures were proposed to improve
water quality and to allow for us to retain derogation into the future.