Nitrate Vulnerable Zone area set to increase

The long-awaited consultation on proposed changes to the Nitrates Directive Action Programme in England could begin in July, according to DEFRA.

Policy adviser, Simon Dawes, said a consultation paper was likely then, but “a few issues with contractors” still needed resolving.

The news came after a recent EU Commission report [see panel] highlighted the UK as one of the countries that had to do more to reduce nitrates from agricultural sources. The report, which covered the period 2000-03 concluded that significant progress had been made in the implementation of the Nitrates Directive across the EU-15, but “considerable further work in improving designations and the quality of action programmes will be required”.

The Arable Group’s Jim Orson feared this would mean an expansion in Nitrate Vulnerable Zone area from the current 55%. “The word on the street is that it could increase to 70%.” This would bring in more land used for intensive livestock production and require many already hard-pressed dairy farmers to invest in extra waste storage capacity, he said.

Michael Payne, the NFU’s environment consultant, expected DEFRA’s consultation to have stricter requirements on farmers in NVZs as the government tries to meet prescriptive EC requirements. “But the UK is already on an improving trend. Nitrogen fertiliser use has been cut by 30% over the last 20 years and many rivers are showing a decline in nitrates, particularly in the Midlands.”

He warned against reading too much into some figures, such as groundwater contamination. “It can take 30-40 years for water to filter down to these deep reserves, so it isn’t necessarily a true reflection of what we’re doing now.”


Overall stable or improving groundwater quality in 64% of sites, but:

  • Increase in nitrate pollution observed in 36% of monitoring sites (including the UK) and 17% showed nitrate concentration above 50mg per litre40mg NO3/litre threshold exceeded in France and UK in over 20% sampling points

  • 86% of surface waters showed stable or decreasing nitrate concentrations, but:

  • In 14% of monitoring stations the concentration is increasing

  • Average area in NVZs across EU-15 was 44% in 2003