In what appears to be a relatively light month for news items, the revised Nitrates Regulations are particularly noteworthy.

The Nitrates Directive was adopted in Europe in 1991 and seeks to address the problem of water pollution caused by nitrogen from agricultural sources. It requires farmers within Nitrate Vulnerable Zones to follow an Action Programme of measures aimed at controlling when, where, how, and in what amount, nitrogen can be applied to land. Areas are identified as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones on the basis that they drain to waters which have, or are likely to have, nitrate levels above 50 mg per litre, or that they are eutrophic or likely to become eutrophic.

Defra announced on 4 September that it had published regulations extending the areas of England designated as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) from 55% to around 70%. Farmers will have until 31 January 2009 to lodge an appeal if they believe their land has been wrongly designated. The Regulations also make changes to the Action Programme specifying actions which farmers in NVZs must take to reduce and prevent nitrate leaching and run-off to waters from manures and fertilisers.

Defra points out that, whilst changes to the Action Programme come into force on 1 January 2009, some of the Action Programme measures have a grace period for compliance of up to three years to allow farmers time to make necessary adjustments to their farming practices, or capital investment such as storage facilities. The planned package of measures to support farmers includes a dedicated helpline, detailed guidance to be issued in October, and an extensive advisory programme, details of which are to be announced shortly.

Defra indicate that the main changes in the revised Action Programme relate to:

  • a whole farm limit of 170 kg per hectare for nitrogen from livestock manures, which applies to all land (currently grassland has a limit of 250 kg). The Government has previously confirmed that it will pursue a derogation from the European Commission on this limit;
  • closed periods for spreading organic manures, which will be longer and will apply to all soil types;
  • manure storage capacity requirements, which have been amended to reduce the risk of manures being spread when conditions are unsuitable; and
  • the introduction of forward planning rules to ensure nitrogen applications from manures and fertilisers are more accurately directed to crop needs.