Environment watchdog calls for radical action on fertiliser usage

Intensive farming needs to be halted in 'vulnerable' areas, warns EPA

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Ciaran Moran

Ciaran Moran

A radical raft of measures to halt a slide in quality standards in the country's waterways is being proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In its submission to the Department of Agriculture's review of the Nitrates derogation, the EPA linked deteriorating water quality to increased output from farming and warned that higher nitrogen and phosphorus levels in waterways must be tackled.

The agency recommends that:

  • The maintenance of soil pH at optimum levels should become obligatory on derogation farms to minimise inefficient and excessive fertiliser applications;
  • Applying slurry to freshly cut silage ground - when the sward is bare and gaseous losses are the highest - needed to be reconsidered;
  • The intensification of agriculture cannot take place everywhere and that vulnerable areas need more careful protection. And given an operational stocking limit of 250kg N/ha, and a crop available value of 85kg N per cow currently, the EPA suggests that the values for these metrics should be reviewed and revised in the context of increased milk output objectives under Food Wise 2025 and more intensive feeding practices that now exist.

Intensification

The submission also recommends that where the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government has set a high-status objective for a water body, that this should be part of the assessment process when considering a farmer's application for a Nitrates derogation.

Crucially, EPA director, Dr Micheál Lehane, claimed that all parts of the country were not equal in the context of intensification, and that some parts of the country are less suited to intensive farming practices.

"Nutrients behave differently in the landscape depending on the soil type and setting, and therefore measures needed to mitigate problems also need to vary depending on the physical context.

EPA calls for 'tailored' action on nitrates

"Phosphorus loss is typically associated with poorly draining soils while nitrogen loss is typically associated with freely draining soils. Consequently, the measures needed to address these different scenarios need to be tailored," he said.

The EPA is also recommending a whole-farm approach be integrated into the Nitrates Action Programme.

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Such a plan, it says would integrate operational farm administration, nutrient management planning, grass growth monitoring, itemisation of the concrete actions being taken on farm to support the environment under GLAS or future agri-environmental schemes/eco-schemes, and actions under certification schemes.

The EPA highlighted that since 2014 the emissions of nitrogen and phosphorus from Irish catchments to the marine environment have been increasing.

"The average total nitrogen emission to the marine environment increased by 3,200 tonnes (6pc) between 2012-2014 and 2015-2017," Dr Lehane pointed out. "The average total phosphorus emission to the marine environment increased by 240 tonnes (22pc) over the same period," he added.

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