DEFRA has started preliminary discussions with stakeholders over possible changes to the NVZ regulations, after the EU demanded that England improve its implementation of the Nitrates Directive.

Possible changes include extending the closed period for slurry application and reducing the amount of manure that can be applied.

“The EU has raised concerns about our current action programme,” said DEFRA’s Maureen Nowak at a farmer meeting in Dorchester on Tuesday (Nov 22).

Although nitrate pollution had fallen by 5% on average between 2000 and 2004, groundwater nitrate levels were rising in over 70% of boreholes, and 27% of surface water regularly contained more than 50mg/litre, she said.

“We need to be properly compliant by 2009, but no decisions on the revised measures have yet been taken, and we very much want to hear your views and get as much feedback as possible.”

The preliminary discussions would enable DEFRA to negotiate with the commission before the official consultation opened in February, she added.

Proposed changes include decreasing the annual permitted manure nitrogen application from 250kg/ha on grassland and 210kg/ha on arable land to just 170kg/ha – equivalent to a stocking rate of just 1.7 cows/ha.

“I can’t make a living with a stocking rate as low as that,” said farmer John Elliot of Longlands Farm, Frampton, Dorset. About one third of dairy farmers would need a derogation to spread 250kg/ha of manure to continue at viable stocking rates, confirmed a Rural Development Service spokesman.

Closed periods for slurry application may also be extended to four months on grassland and five months on arable land, regardless of soil type.

But this would cause significant storage problems for some farmers, and would concentrate surface run-off and labour requirement into a shorter period of time, warned farmer Alan Spicer, of Manor Farm, Waterstone, Dorchester. “I think it would finish us – we can’t afford to put in the storage that would be required.”

The EU was also pressing for a closed period for application of farmyard manure, but DEFRA hoped to resist this, said the RDS’s Mike Marks. DEFRA will consult on the proposals until May next year, and the new rules are likely to come into force by July.