The area of England classified as a nitrate vulnerable zone (NVZ) has dropped from 58% to 55% following a series of successful appeals against a designation by farmers.
Defra has published a set of revised NVZ maps that reflect the final outcome of an appeals process than has been running since the start of 2017.
Grace Righton, NFU environment adviser, said more than 100 appeals had been made by farmers, or groups of farmers, with many successfully arguing that their land drained into water that should not be identified as polluted, or that if it was polluted, agriculture was not the main cause.
Out of a total of 135 appeals put forward to the Environment Agency by farmers last year, 94 were successful.
Ms Righton said the union had been involved in many of the appeals, using a specialist consultancy firm called Hafren Water to help decide the likelihood of a successful challenge.
Farmers who are in an NVZ have to comply with strict rules on the use of nitrogen fertilisers and the storage of organic manure, which can prove costly, she said.
“It is not fair that farmers should have to apply extra measures and costs associated with a NVZ designation if it can be shown that farming is not the source of the pollution.”
Hugh Broom, a mixed farmer near Dorking, Surrey, successfully appealed an NVZ designation around part of the River Mole with the help of the NFU and Hafren Water.
The designation had been in place since the early 2000s and affected 30-40 other farm businesses.
“It was a victory for common sense as we were all being penalised when only about 10% of the N load was attributable to agriculture and the rest was down to the sewage works,” he told Farmers Weekly.
“When the next opportunity comes around to appeal, I would encourage others to look into it. It gives us greater flexibility in terms of when we can spread [fertilisers and manures].”
Check final map
The Environment Agency urged all farmers to check the final map so they are sure about their status and whether they are fully complying with the regulations.
It also pointed out that whether in or out of an NVZ, all farmers and land managers need to follow the new Farming Rules for Water, which were introduced in April 2018.
The appeals process
Farmers only get the chance to appeal against an NVZ designation when the boundaries are reviewed – which happens on a four-year cycle.
In December 2016, Defra and the Environment Agency published its proposed NVZ designations for the 2017-2020 period, which sought to slightly increase the percentage of England affected from 57% to 58%.
Farmers whose land fell within an NVZ were allowed 28 days from designation to appeal the decision.
These appeals were heard over the course of last year and the final results have now been reflected in the revised map published by the Environment Agency.