Progress on implementation of the Nitrates Directive in Northern Ireland was the subject at the latest quarterly meeting of the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association. Bringing the Association up to date and outlining the challenges for the future were Dr Sinclair Mayne, DARD and Dr,Fiona Wilson DOE.

Claudine Heron, NIGTA President with NIGTA members, David Mawhinney, George Starrett and Andrea Russell. Photo: Columba O'Hare
Claudine Heron, NIGTA President with NIGTA members, David Mawhinney, George Starrett and Andrea Russell. Photo: Columba O'Hare

The Nitrates Directive is a European Union Directive which aims to improve water quality by protecting water against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources. Whilst low nitrate concentrations predominate in river, lakes and groundwaters in Northern Ireland, most lowland lakes are classed as eutrophic, primarily as a result of phosphorus enrichment. In 2000, the European Commission determined that nitrate inputs must be controlled in situations where freshwaters are eutrophic.

In 2004, the whole of Northern Ireland was established as the area to which a Nitrates Action Programme should be applied in order to address the widespread nutrient enrichment of rivers and lakes. In January 2007, revised action programme regulations were introduced which apply to all farms in NI.

Key measures of the 2007-2010 Action Programme included:

Storage requirements for livestock manure.

Closed periods for manure and N fertilizer application to land.

Limits on rates of N fertilizer and livestock manure application.

Restrictions on methods and environmental conditions for fertilizer and manure application.

Requirements for record keeping.

In order to assist the industry to comply with the increased livestock manure storage requirement, DARD introduced the Farm Nutrient Management Scheme which provided 60% grant aid for over 3900 projects across Northern Ireland. The Scheme resulted in a widescale upgrading of farm infrastructure, with a total investment of over £200m. DARD provided grant aid of some £121m with farmers contributing over £80m.

In addition, grant aid has been provided to encourage uptake of more efficient slurry spreading systems through the Manure Efficiency Technology Scheme (METS). 84 systems were funded in Tranche 1 and funding for a further 125 systems is being offered under Tranche 2 at present. DARD also continues to fund a major research and development programme at the Agri Food and Biosciences Institute, with the overall objective of increasing the efficiency of nitrogen and phosphorus use in livestock, grass and crop systems. 

Claudine Heron, President, NIGTA with Dr Sinclair Mayne, Departmental Scientific Adviser with DARD, Guest Speaker at last weeks NIGTA Meeting. Photo: Columba O'Hare
Claudine Heron, President, NIGTA with Dr Sinclair Mayne, Departmental Scientific Adviser with DARD, Guest Speaker at last weeks NIGTA Meeting. Photo: Columba O'Hare

When considered in conjunction with the 2006 NI Phosphorus Regulations, and other changes within the industry, there has been a significant increase in the efficiency of nutrient use from livestock manures. This is reflected in a notable decrease in both N and P fertilizer use. From 1995 to 2010, N fertilizer use declined from 150 to 94kg N/ha whilst P fertilizer use declined from 14.4kg to 3.9kg P/ha. The net effect of this reduced P fertilizer use, coupled with a voluntary reduction in P levels for compound feed implemented through the NI Grain Trade Association, has been a marked reduction in the overall P surplus for NI agriculture, from 17.9kg/ha in 1995 to 10.2kg/ha in 2010.

This reduction in P surplus is also reflected in improved water quality, with long-term trend analysis showing a strong decrease in monthly trends for soluble reactive phosphorus concentration in 64% of all rivers over the period 1999 to 2008. Phosphorus levels in Lough Neagh have also shown a slight but consistent downward trend since 2002. However, eutrophication continues to be a problem in rivers, lakes and marine waters in Northern Ireland and it will take longer for a response to the action programme and phosphorus measures to be reflected in biological indicators of water quality.

Following detailed consideration of trends in water quality, the European Commission agreed to relatively minor modifications for the Action Programme which will run from 2011-14. These include:

Introduction of a closed period for farmyard manure.

Increased controls on fertilizer application on steeply sloping ground.

Tightened controls on field storage of farmyard manure and poultry litter.

Use of lower values for N excretion rates from pigs.

The Commission also approved an extension of the derogation for grazing livestock farms to enable manure N application up to 250kg N/ha (subject to certain criteria), compared to 170kg N/ha without a derogation. Dr Mayne highlighted the relatively low uptake of the derogation in Northern Ireland, 145 farms, relative to that in the Republic of Ireland, with over 5000 farms, and recommended that more farmers should consider applying for a derogation.

Overall, Drs Mayne and Wilson concluded that implementation of the Nitrates Directive and Phosphorus Regulations had resulted in a major improvement in the efficiency of nitrogen and phosphorus in livestock manures, and this was now beginning to be reflected in improving water quality in streams, rivers and lakes. The key challenge for the future was to examine further opportunities to reduce the overall P balance for agriculture in Northern Ireland, through examining the scope for reduced P levels in compound feeds and to deal with the issue of surplus P in poultry litter.

The Nitrates Directive requires Action Programmes to be reviewed every 4 years and revised if necessary. For the next review in 2013, it will be vital to be able to demonstrate to the European Commission a continuing improvement in water quality and nutrient use. Therefore, it is in everyone’s interest to work to achieve this, comply with the Action Programme and follow sustainable farming practice.