Nitrate Vulnerable Zone rules across the UK are likely to be in for some big changes this year and growers must ensure they are up to speed with what’s going on.

That was one of the main messages from the new AICC chairman Andrew Watson, who also represents the organisation on DEFRA’s NVZ stakeholder panel. “DEFRA is under threat of legal action for the current state of its NVZ rules and the EU is pushing for much stricter, Draconian controls.

“DEFRA is trying to adjust the new regulations to UK agriculture while still meeting the aim of reducing nitrates in water.”

When the review finally happens – possibly early this year – he thought the area of England designated as an NVZ could increase significantly. “Personally, I think it could be 100%. If this happened, it would have major implications for many farmers, but at least it does avoid the situation we have at the moment where two neighbouring farmers have separate rules.”

Consultation on proposed amendments to the Scottish rules closes in under a fortnight (see panel) and a review of the situation south of the border is “imminent”. “If we take Scotland as a model, six months after the [three-month] consultation closes, we may end up with new rules coming into effect.”

But while no date or details had been announced for the English consultation, six proposals had been discussed at stakeholder meetings over the past year and were likely to form the basis of any formal industry consultation, he hinted.

Potentially one of the most significant for arable farmers, he said, was the suggestion to limit how much nitrogen could be applied to a crop. The EU favoured a blanket maximum nitrogen rate for each crop, with no flexibility, he said.

“This will be a severe restriction if we are not allowed to put the economic optimum on to the crop [as in Denmark] and would have a severe effect on farming businesses. I hope it doesn’t happen.”

As an alternative, DEFRA was suggesting growers complete a nitrogen plan to show how and why a particular rate of the nutrient was used, he said.

A proposal to tighten the closed periods for applying all manures could also have big consequences for arable producers, Mr Watson continued. The EU’s position favoured introducing a 5-6 month closed period for all manures on all soil types.

But DEFRA preferred closed periods for high-nitrogen manures only, for example pig or poultry manure/slurry, with variable periods by land use, soil type and climatic zone based on rainfall, he said.

“Storage requirements could also double, which would involve a lot of capital investment for farmers and would be a major concern. Nothing’s certain yet, but farmers need to know what sort of things are being discussed.”