NFU Scotland has raised serious concerns about the Scottish government’s plans to relax rules for farmers at risk in nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs).

Following a consultation last year, the Scottish government announced changes to its nitrate action programme for NVZs on Wednesday (9 January).

In particular, the union is opposed to an extension of the “closed” period, when slurry may not be spread, by two weeks on heavier soils for arable and grassland – with effect from October 2013.

It also opposed plans to increase the livestock manure nitrogen efficiency standard values used in calculating available nitrogen – with effect from 1 January 2014 – claiming it would reduce the productivity of land.

NFUS said the changes ran counter to the recommendations of the Scottish government’s own advisory and regulatory body, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).

Union vice-president Allan Bowie, who farms in the NVZ area of Fife, said: “It is difficult to see why the Scottish government is pushing for these changes to its nitrates action programme.

“NFUS agrees entirely that farmers should apply slurries and manures in a way that minimises environmental risk, however, rules must be science-based and strike a balance with the practical and financial realities that farmers face.”

Mr Bowie added that the union would fight the proposals and had already gone back to the Scottish government reiterate their opposition and would be lobbying MSPs from all parties to ensure that any changes to the programme did not “needlessly undermine Scotland’s farmers”.

Other key amendments to the programme include: reducing the time for which records need to be kept from five to three years, and an increased individual field allowance in any 12-month period where compost is applied.

The Scottish government will also be considering options to reduce record keeping for low intensity farms and reducing buffer zone widths through the use of precision equipment.

Scottish rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead said: “As required by European rules, we have reviewed our nitrates action programme, in keeping with our commitment to cut needless bureaucracy for farmers. We have taken this opportunity to ensure the rules are proportionate, clear and effective.

“I hope farmers will find this clarification – and, in some cases, relaxation of the rules – welcome.”

He added: “I know the wet weather has caused slurry storage and spreading problems for some farmers within nitrate vulnerable zones. A small number of farmers have found themselves in this position and they have worked with local area office staff to find alternative solutions.”

The EU Nitrates Directive requires member states to have an action programme on NVZs to protect groundwater and surface water from nitrate pollution from farming activities.

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