New nitrates restrictions on the way for English farmers

DEFRA is due to publish it’s long-awaited Nitrates Action Programme for England on Monday (21 July), increasing the area designated as Nitrate Vulnerable Zone and tightening restrictions on slurry storage and spreading for many farmers.

The changes have been triggered because the UK is facing a legal challenge by the EU Commission, which says it has not properly implemented the 1991 Nitrates Directive. Failure to amend the legislation will lead to hefty fines.

Full details of the NAP will be presented on Monday, but it is understood that there are a number of significant improvements from the government’s original proposals.


With regards the area to be covered, DEFRA is thought to have increased the area counted as NVZ from the current 55% of England to nearer 70%.

That is considerably better than the 100% that had been mooted.

DEFRA has also now agreed to apply for a derogation from Brussels on the level of organic nitrogen that can be applied to pasture during the course of a year.

The Directive sets a basic limit of 170kgN/ha – equivalent to about 0.7 cows/acre.


But several other member states, such as Ireland and the Netherlands, already have derogations allowing them to operate at 250kgN/ha and the UK is expected to follow suit. (Northern Ireland, which is 100% NVZ, already has this derogation.)

The other key areas of the NAP are slurry storage and closed periods for spreading.

Full details are not yet known, but it is understood there will be more flexibility built in compared with the government’s original proposal for all livestock farms in NVZs to have a full five months storage capacity available, regardless of actual need.

DEFRA may also choose to drop the proposed requirement for all arable land to have a cover crop over the winter months.

As a recent report from the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said, this measure is not even mentioned in the Nitrates Directive.

Forcing farmers to maintain a cover crop would play havoc with spring sown crops such as vining peas, potatoes and brassicas.