Commodity watch - Ammonia update

Friday, 27 September, 2019

Commodity Watch

By Environment and Rural Development senior policy officer, Aileen Lawson

Ammonia emissions from agriculture has become a key policy priority for the Ulster Farmers’ Union. Over 90% of ammonia emissions come from agriculture and despite the perception that intensive pigs and poultry farms are the main source of ammonia emissions in NI, the fact is that around 70% of the ammonia in NI comes from cattle. Ammonia (NH3) is a natural and invisible gas, which is produced in livestock housing, slurry storage and spreading and from fertiliser application. Reducing emissions in NI is now a priority for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA).

The main concern about ammonia is that when it is emitted into the air it is subsequently deposited as nitrogen onto land and water. Nitrogen deposition occurs in gaseous form close to the source (dry deposition) or through rainfall (wet deposition), often many miles from the original ammonia source. When it is deposited as nitrogen, it acts as a fertiliser and if this falls on species that are more sensitive it can cause damage and loss. Northern Ireland has designated land across the country as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), Special Protection Areas (SPA) and Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI). This land is protected by law and NIEA estimate that most of these designated sites and other priority habitats are receiving levels of nitrogen which are significantly above their “critical load”, the concentration at which significant ecological damage occurs. DAERA therefore want to reduce emissions to protect these habitats to allow them to comply with their EU and international biodiversity obligations. The UK also must meet reduction targets for ammonia to meet air quality commitments. 

Currently ammonia is impacting on local farmers when they apply for planning permission. Planning rules require an assessment to be made on the impact of a development on protected habitats and NIEA will be consulted if there are any designated sites or priority habitats within 7.5km of the proposed project. Large pig and poultry farms which require an IPPC permit to operate will have to take further action to reduce ammonia. 

Local planners based in the Council also have to ensure planning applications do not have an adverse impact on international habitats (SACs, SPAs, Ramsar sites). They contract Shared Environmental Services to do assessments on applications and until recently SES accepted the NIEA policy and position. In July 2019 that changed, and SES adopted a much tougher stance on ammonia emissions which has caused the UFU huge concern. While their focus is on the SAC/SPA/Ramsar sites, the nature and location of these sites mean that the majority of farmers in Northern Ireland would be scrutinized by SES and are likely to struggle to meet the new requirements for planning resulting in a potential halt to most farm development. This will impact on all farms regardless of sector or farm size.

The Union has been highly critical of the position taken by Shared Environmental Services which was made without consultation with the industry. Farmers need to develop their business to meet new standards, improve health and safety and increase efficiencies allowing them to compete in the marketplace. Preventing on farm development is stifling these improvements and is causing a huge amount of stress and strain for many NI family farms who are worried about their future.

The UFU has been meeting politicians, writing to councils, and is taking further advice on challenging the SES position.