18 September 1998

End of NSAs goes against aims

By Jonathan Riley

ENDING the Nitrate Sensitive Area scheme goes against the governments declared aims to encourage farming systems that benefit the environment, according to Lincs-based producer Tony Ireland.

Mr Ireland, who farms at Rauceby Grange, North Rauceby, which lies within an NSA, explained that the pilot project offered financial incentives to encourage producers to reduce nitrogen inputs. He committed his arable farm to the scheme in 1990.

"The aim of the scheme was to assess the effectiveness of a voluntary scheme in reducing nitrate levels in borehole water to below an EU target maximum of 50mg/litre," said Mr Ireland.

But this summer, funds were withdrawn as part of the cuts announced in the governments comprehensive spending review. And Mr Ireland will receive payments only until his management agreement ends in three years time.

"We were shocked because, although it was only a pilot scheme, surface water can take many decades to filter down to the aquifer and the aim of the scheme was to monitor this process. So we were convinced that the scheme had to be a long-term proposition to gain meaningful results," he said.

On that basis, he opted to take maximum payments of £550ha (£222/acre) available to producers reducing nitrogen inputs by converting arable land to ungrazed pasture.

The Countryside Stewardship Scheme, Mr Ireland added, offers less money. And Nitrate Vulnerable Zones do not compensate producers for the extra management input needed in a low nitrogen/less extensive system.

"Also there will be no compensation for the losses to our business in changing the businesss direction. For example, committing our arable land to grassland left three combines without work and fortunately – unlike some producers in NSAs – we did not sell them. Instead the combines have been used for contract work.

"But other producers have committed their businesses further, sold their arable equipment and laid men off. For them the situation is far bleaker," he said. "We now have no option but to plough the grass in and begin arable farming again."

That would cause nitrogen losses and destroy the environmental benefits that had been achieved, such as the return of curlews, skylarks and grey partridge after an absence of many years. "Surely this scheme is exactly what the government claims it wants to achieve and yet it seems happy to let all of the good work go down the drain," said Mr Ireland. &#42