New rules for farmers “will help to protect the water environment”

New rules for farmers in England came into force last month

The rules are designed to prevent fertilisers and manure from seeping into watercourses

May 16th 2018

New rules for farmers came into force last month, designed to protect water quality and prevent soil erosion. The rules, which came into force on April 2nd 2018, apply to all farmers in England. The new rules were announced by the Government in a news story last November, which said that the rules would standardise good farming practices, help to protect the water environment, provide a new approach to regulation, and would also help farmers to save money through improved resource efficiency and resilience. [1]

In summary, the rules require farmers to match nutrients to crop and soil needs, and prevent fertilisers, manure, and soil from seeping into watercourses. The Government said the rules “were drawn up with farming and environment stakeholders to recognise and build on the good progress that a great many farmers have made in trying to tackle pollution.” The rules apply to farming and horticultural practices such as planting and harvesting; soil management, which includes ploughing and planting cover crops (“any crop with leaf cover that stops rain falling directly onto the soil”); using and storing manure or fertiliser; and managing livestock.

Assessing the risks of pollution

The Government has published guidance for farmers and landowners on what they must do “to manage manure, fertiliser, and soil to prevent runoff, erosion, and leaching.” [2] There are nine sets of rules. One is a general rule that requires farmers to assess the risks of pollution from the sorts of activities outlined above, taking into account a number of factors that can have an effect on soil erosion or increase the risk of runoff. The guidelines list five factors: distances to inland freshwaters, coastal waters, wetlands, springs, wells and boreholes; the angle of slopes; the presence and condition of land drains; the amount of ground cover; and the type of soil and its condition.

As for the other sets of rules, five are concerned with managing fertilisers and manures, two are concerned with managing soils, and one is concerned with managing livestock:

“The fertiliser rules require farmers to test their soils, then plan and apply their fertiliser or manure to improve soil nutrient levels and meet crop needs. They include minimum storage and spreading distances from water bodies. They also require the farmer to assess weather and soil conditions to reduce the risk of runoff and soil erosion. The remaining rules require farmers to manage livestock by protecting land within five metres of water and reducing livestock poaching [i.e., compacting soil by trampling]. In addition to these rules, farmers are encouraged to incorporate organic fertilisers into the soil within twelve hours of spreading to significantly reduce ammonia pollution.” [3]

Managing fertilisers and manure

The guidelines advise farmers to plan every application of fertiliser or manure, whether they are spread on the land surface, injected into the soil, or mixed with the soil surface layers. [4] Farmers are told to assess the pollution risks, as outlined above, assess the weather conditions and forecasts at the time of application, and match the quantity to crop or soil needs so that no more is used than is necessary. Farmers are also told to check the organic matter content and moisture level of the soil, and to check that their spreading equipment is calibrated and does not leak. Fertilisers or manure must not be used on waterlogged, flooded, or snow-covered soil, or on land where the soil has been frozen for more than 12 hours in the past 24 hours. Whenever they are applied, they should be worked into the soil within 12 hours or as soon as possible after the application.

An extra rule applies if fertilisers or manure are to be used on cultivated agricultural land, which is defined as land that has been ploughed, sowed or harvested at least once in the last year; or land that has received an application of manure or fertiliser at least once in the last three years. In this case, farmers must plan by using the results of a soil test, which must be no more than five years old at the time of application. The test results must show the pH and levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium.

As for the proximity to watercourses, fertilisers must not be used within 2 metres of inland freshwaters, coastal waters, a spring, well or borehole; while manure must not be used or stored within 50 metres of a spring, well or borehole; or within 10 metres of inland freshwaters or coastal waters. The latter limit for applying manure is shortened to 6 metres if precision equipment is used. [5]

A further exception to the use of manure is where the land is managed for breeding wader birds or as a species-rich semi-natural grassland. In this case, manure (but not slurry or poultry manure) can be applied within 10 metres of inland freshwaters and coastal waters if the land is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) or is the subject of an Environmental or Countryside Stewardship scheme. However, the manure should not be applied to the water surface, and should only be applied from 1st June to 31st October. There is also a limit to the amount that can be applied in any year, which is no more than 12.5 tonnes per hectare.

Managing soil and livestock

On soil management, as well as the soil test for cultivated agricultural land mentioned above, the guidelines advise farmers to take reasonable precautions to prevent soil loss caused by horticultural or farming activities: “soil loss can lead to erosion and allow pollutants to get into watercourses.” In particular, farmers are told to take reasonable precautions to reduce the risk of pollution when they carry out the following activities: creating farm tracks or gateways; establishing seedbeds, polytunnels or tramlines; cleaning out ditches; installing drainage or irrigation; irrigating crops; and spraying crops with pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides.

Examples of good practice are cited as: planting crops in early autumn and in dry conditions; planting headland rows and beds across the base of sloping land; under-sowing or sowing a cover crop to stabilise soil after harvest; breaking up compacted soil; and establishing grass buffer strips in valleys, along contours, slopes, field edges, and gateways.

A further set of rules are concerned with managing livestock to avoid pollution and soil erosion. Livestock feeders must not be placed within 10 metres of inland freshwaters or coastal waters; or within 50 metres of a spring, well or borehole. Farmers are also told to prevent livestock compacting soil by trampling it within 5 metres of inland freshwaters or coastal waters. As examples of good practice, the guidelines cite moving livestock to prevent soil compaction and soil erosion by riverbanks; putting up fences to keep animals away from watercourses; and wintering livestock on well-drained, level fields.

Inspections and enforcement

The guidelines state that the Environment Agency will be responsible for enforcing the new rules, and will do this through its farm inspections work. These inspections may include checking the distance restrictions; checking for soil erosion that affects a single area of more than 1 hectare; checking for soil compaction on a stretch of land, at least 2 metres wide and 20 metres long, next to an inland freshwater or coastal water; checking for signs of fertiliser use in restricted areas, including excessive vegetation growth on the margins of restricted areas; checking fertiliser records, including records on calibrating fertiliser equipment; checking soil test results; checking for evidence of pollution or for significant risks of pollution; and checking the types of crops that are being planted. If the Environment Agency discovers a breach of the rules, it will help farmers by identifying the changes that need to be made, and agreeing a timescale to make the necessary changes. The Environment Agency may follow this up with a return visit or ask for photographic evidence to check that the changes have been made.

New rules are welcomed by the Rivers Trust

Responding to the announcement of the new rules, the Rivers Trust said last December that “Defra’s new common-sense rules for farming will make a significant difference to the health of rivers.” Arlin Rickard, CEO of The Rivers Trust and Chair of the Catchment Based Approach National Support Group, said:

“We have been working closely with Defra and farmers on the ground to ensure these common-sense but important rules are easy to follow and are set out in a practical and intuitive way. They will provide a clear point of reference for farmers and help maintain healthy soils, crops and livestock as well as reduce diffuse pollution. They will also help farmers save money by using nutrients more efficiently. Our local Rivers Trusts together with the 100 plus Catchment Partnerships that cover England will be promoting the uptake of the rules through our extensive advisor and farmer networks.” [6]

In last year’s news story, the Government said:

“Farming rules for water are part of a whole package of measures to help farmers and land managers look after the environment. The Government is also investing £400 million through Countryside Stewardship schemes which support farmers in creating or restoring precious habitats, and a £12 million farm ammonia reduction grant has incentivised farmers to tackle agricultural emissions. The new rules will not only benefit farming businesses. Clean water helps tourism, fishing, and shellfish businesses to thrive, reduces the cost of treatment, and protects biodiversity. The Environment Agency will roll out the rules through an advice-led approach, working with farmers to meet the requirements before enforcement action is taken. Farmers and land managers will be able to determine what approach is best for their land, through methods such as deciding when it is safe to spread fertilisers.” [7]

Photograph:

Creative Commons Licence
Corvedale Cattle © Copyright Anthony Bloor and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. The new rules advise farmers to erect fences to keep cattle away from watercourses.

Notes

[1] The news story was published on 30th November 2017. See the GOV.UK web page “New Farming Rules for Water”.

[2] For Defra’s guidance on the new rules, see the GOV.UK web page “Rules for farmers and land managers to prevent water pollution”. The title of the relevant legislation is The Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018.

[3] See [1].

[4] Manure is defined in the guidance as organic materials made from one or more animal, plant or human sources.

[5] The precision equipment is defined specifically in the guidelines as “a trailing hose or shoe band spreader; a shallow injector (no deeper than 10cm); or a dribble bar applicator.”

[6] For the Rivers Trust response, click here. Diffuse pollution refers to water pollution caused by manure, fertiliser or soil seeping into watercourses.

[7] See [2].

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