Farmers have just three months to comply with Nitrate Vulnerable Zone regulations – or face the loss of their single payment.

“We’ve done an awful lot of communication to raise awareness of the regulations,” said Richard Cresswell, south west director of the Environment Agency. “Claiming not to know won’t wash as an excuse for non-compliance.”

However, the EA would take a sympathetic approach to farmers who had tried but failed to create sufficient storage capacity by the deadline.

The new rules come into force on 1 January, 2012 and require dairy and livestock farmers in NVZ areas to have five months slurry storage, with pig and poultry farmers required to have six months’ capacity.

Although farmers have had three years in which to comply, a survey by Defra last summer revealed that almost 40% were still not aware they were in an NVZ.

“Before pursuing enforcement action, we’ll look at the steps the farmer has taken towards being compliant, such as submitting planning applications, getting quotes or booking contractors.

Put simply, the more evidence a farmer can provide that he has taken steps to comply, the less likely we are to prosecute.

“But this isn’t just about complying with EU legislation; farmers who are applying nitrates to their soil at the wrong time will lose them through leaching or runoff,” he added. “That is a lose-lose scenario – the environment suffers, and the farmer has wasted his money.”

Creating sufficient slurry storage need not be expensive, said Mr Creswell. “Simple work to separate rainwater from slurry, and roofing yards, can save a massive amount, and there are grants for that in the South West.” Bringing work forward into the current tax year would also secure maximum tax relief via Capital Allowances before rates fell next April.

“It is not too late for farmers who have not done anything yet. There is a whole host of organisations, like the NFU and CLA, who can help you plan what to do in the next three months.

We want to help, not prosecute, farmers, and we will look favourably on someone who has put plans into place or contacted us to discuss their concerns.”