Farmers face new limits on fertiliser use to tackle pollution following the publication of the government’s 25-year plan to protect and enhance the environment.
The new rules are just one measure included in the long-awaited plan, unveiled by prime minister Theresa May on Thursday (11 January).
Further measures in the 151-page document cover soil, water, pesticides and chemicals – and proposals for a new agri-environment scheme.
Other industries will also be expected to play their part as the government seeks to leave the environment in a “better state than we found it” within a generation. But the report says most land is used for agriculture and much of its focus is on farming.
Speaking at the launch event in London, Mrs May suggested new rules would go above and beyond those imposed by the EU.
She said: “We will use the opportunity Brexit provides to strengthen and enhance our environmental protections – not to weaken them.”
Industries from agriculture and forestry to aquaculture and fishing support hundreds of thousands of jobs and contribute billions of pounds to the national economy, said Mrs May.
But as well as drawing on the environment, there was a responsibility to protect and enhance it.
The report says: “The new system of support that we will bring in for farmers – true friends of the earth, who recognise that a care for land is crucial to future rural prosperity – will have environmental enhancement at its heart.”
Farmers will be encouraged to turn fields into wildflower meadows, plant more trees, restore habitats for endangered species, recover soil fertility and attract wildlife.
More ambitiously, the plan says broader landscapes will be transformed by wildlife corridors linking habitats.
The plan says the government will put in place a “robust framework to limit inputs of nitrogen-rich fertilisers such as manures, slurries and chemicals to economically efficient levels, and make sure they are stored and applied safely”.
Poor storage and spreading of manure, slurry and other fertilisers can lead to the release of harmful chemicals and gases such as ammonia, says the report.
This pollution could be substantially reduced through consistent use of good nutrient management practices, it adds.
Although action has already been taken, further measures are likely. No timetable is included but the plan suggests this will include the introduction of more rules, advice and – if appropriate – financial support.
Overall, farming is now the most significant source of water pollution and of ammonia emissions into the atmosphere in the UK, says the report.
It accounts for 25% phosphate, 50% nitrate and 75% sediment loadings in the water environment, which harm ecosystems.
New, simplified rules aimed at encouraging land managers to reduce water pollution from agriculture are due to come into force on 2 April 2018.
The plan says these rules will be reviewed after three years, suggesting they could be tightened.
The new rules will require every farmer to identify and manage risks to water on their land and start taking precautions to reduce ammonia emissions, thereby reducing pollution and soil erosion, and improving resource efficiency.
A new soil health index will be developed to make it easier for farmers to monitor and improve the quality of their soil.
This will include indicators such as the level of humus and biological activity so farmers can more readily assess whether their actions are having the desired effect.
The plan, says Defra, will invest at least £200,000 to help develop and test soil health metrics on farms across the country.
It will also investigate the potential for improvements in soil health to support the government’s wider environment goals.
“We will seek out ways to work with farmers to achieve good soil management practices, including appropriate tillage choices, reintroducing grass leys into arable rotations and the use of cover crops,” says the report.
The report confirms the government’s intention to support further restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked by some scientists to declining populations of bees and other important pollinators.
Other action includes ensuring the regulation of pesticides continues to develop with scientific knowledge and is robust and fit for purpose, so as to protect people and the environment. “We will maintain this direction after exiting the EU,” says the plan.
The UK National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides will be reviewed this year. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) will be at the heart of a holistic approach to encourage and support sustainable crop protection with the minimum use of pesticides.
A new woodland-creation grant scheme will encourage more farmers to plant trees on marginal land, while encouraging agroforestry.
The plan says this scheme will be drawn up in consultation with landowners, farmers and key forestry stakeholders.
The government will also explore how this new grant scheme could specifically encourage larger-scale afforestation to meet carbon goals and wider environmental benefits at a landscape scale, says the document.
It says: “Through new approaches to environmental land management we will support extra woodland creation, incentivising more landowners and farmers to plant trees on their land, including for agroforestry and bio-energy production purposes.”
Farm leaders have given a mixed reaction to the plan. The NFU said farming and the environment went hand-in-hand – and the government must not lose sight of the fact that high-quality, home-grown food was critical to the future of the country.
NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: “Over the past four decades, farmers have carried out a huge amount of work to encourage wildlife, as well as benefitting the landscape, soil and water and reducing their impact on the climate.”
Improving the environment was feasible only if there was a coherent approach and farmers were able to run viable businesses, said Mr Smith. This was possible only if environmental measures were linked with measures to improve productivity and manage market volatility, he added.
CLA policy director Christopher Price said the direction of travel set out in the plan held “significant potential”.
But he warned much more work and clarity was needed to make the goverment’s plan more specific and signal where the hard choices would be made.
“Much of what is proposed will require significant investment from a range of sources consistently delivered over decades,” said Mr Price.
“It also requires us to create market opportunities, whether that be to reward land use that captures carbon, manages water or provides offsets for the environmental impacts of development. This will be a big part of making this successful and sustainable.”
Environmental land management scheme
A new land management scheme will motivate and reward land managers to restore and improve the environment and rural heritage. No date is given for its introduction, but Defra secretary Michael Gove has previously suggested it will be in place by 2024.
The scheme will provide support for farmers and land managers as the UK moves towards a more effective application of the “polluter pays” principle, whereby the costs of pollution are borne by those responsible for creating it.
The plan says the new scheme will “deliver more” for the environment, including mitigating the effects of climate change. It says the scheme will also be flexible – “putting more management decisions in the hands of farmers”.
Previous and existing schemes, such as countryside stewardship, have rewarded farmers who encourage scarce farmland bird populations and pollinator species. They have also helped to conserve important heritage assets. But the application process is often cumbersome.
The government says it wants future schemes to be less bureaucratic. It says it will continue to invest in technical advice to help farmers deliver better outcomes and to help them work together to achieve benefits at a landscape and catchment level.
Capital grants could support the adoption of long-term sustainable land management practices, says the plan. But again, there is no detail. Further proposals are expected to be included in a government consultation later this spring.