OPINION: Farm manure rules are spreading confusion and frustration

Rob Wise, environment adviser for NFU East Anglia

Rob Wise, environment adviser for NFU East Anglia - Credit: NFU

Updated rules governing how farmers can spread manure on their land have caused confusion and frustration says Rob Wise, East Anglia environment adviser for the National Farmers' Union (NFU).

A few weeks ago, I was asked to comment in this paper on the Environment Agency’s (EA's) introduction of a Regulatory Position Statement, designed to tell farmers under what circumstances they would be allowed to apply organic manures to farmland this summer and autumn.

Rightly, rules are in place to prevent the possibility of applied manures being leached into watercourses, causing pollution, and farmers have been adjusting their practices for years to protect the environment.

The new statement was supposed to help farmers have greater clarity on what constitutes legal practice. At the time I said the statement was going to be extremely frustrating for farmers in East Anglia to work with, given the non-specific way it was written.

The Environment Agency has updated its rules on spreading organic manure on farmland, in a bid to re

The Environment Agency has updated its rules on spreading organic manure on farmland, in a bid to reduce water pollution - Credit: Archant

With so many pig, poultry and cattle farms in the region, combined with on-farm anaerobic digester plants, producing valuable organic fertilisers, we were expecting the EA to introduce a simpler, understandable regime for this season. 

And mighty frustrating it has proved to be. Hundreds of farmers have contacted the NFU to seek clarity on whether their applications will now be legal.

The NFU has been working tirelessly to get ministers and officials to realise and correct the confusion they have sown. Many farmers have contacted the EA regarding specific applications they want to make, only to be told they will get a response within 20 days. That simply isn’t good enough. 

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We know some farmers have had responses, but many are still waiting after several weeks. Meanwhile, the proverbial is backing up in farmyards across Norfolk and Suffolk, and farmers’ plans for preparing for next year’s crop are in disarray.

This is now creating huge financial losses for farming and contracting businesses, unable to get on for fear of doing the wrong thing and getting prosecuted.

Following intensive lobbying by the NFU and its members writing to their MPs, the EA has attempted to clear up the confusion by issuing a statement on Wednesday saying that, as long as the application doesn’t pose "significant risks" of pollution, they will approve it.

We are now asking them to define what constitutes "significant risks", as that is not clearly defined in their statement.

Many farmers have been seeking guidance from technical advisers on whether proposed applications will comply, and advisers are often reluctant to commit themselves given the vagueness of the EA’s statements.

However, the new statement also makes it clear that the EA will assess the risk of the activity. Good, but we worry whether they have the resources to do this.

The EA told the NFU last week that, if it turns out that they can’t cope, they will take a different approach. The experience of the speed of their current decision-making over the last three weeks suggests they are already overwhelmed and cannot make these decisions in a timely way.

The NFU is therefore asking for them to change tack now, before further damage is done. The NFU has called for the Regulatory Position Statement to be suspended, with no enforcement action to be taken against farmers this year.   

A working group is considering how to put in place rules that are enforceable for next year and beyond - something the NFU has been discussing with the EA for the past two or more years. Until there is agreement on how to do that, the current debacle needs to be brought to an end. 

With the EA all but saying that, unless there is a significant risk of pollution, all applications will be allowed this year, surely they can just make this their default position now?   

Continuing to ask farmers to detail on a field-by-field basis the applications they want to make and having to wait indefinitely for an answer is impracticable and unreasonable.  A word from farmers to their MP along these lines would not go amiss. 

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