Picture: Cliff Donaldson
Commodity watch by senior policy officer Aileen Lawson
The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) is aware of the severe pressure that farmers across Northern Ireland (NI) are under with the slurry spreading deadline of midnight on 15 October looming. Union staff have been inundated with calls from members who are struggling to get silage and crop cut, and slurry out safely with the poor weather and challenging ground conditions. The UFU recognises the extreme pressure and stress that local farmers and contractors are under and have raised this with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). However, there is some limited flexibility within the Nutrients Action Programme which caters for exceptional circumstances when farmers cannot fully comply with the rules, through no fault of their own, which will help those farmers who are struggling currently.
As we move towards the closed period it is important that farmers comply with the spreading conditions of the Nutrients Action Programme to avoid penalties and risk to waterways.
Why will a general extension to the closed period for Northern Ireland not be granted?
The closed period dates are set in legislation therefore any change or extension would require a change in the law and with no Ministers in Stormont, this is just not possible. The UFU have always opposed farming by rigid calendar dates but at present there is no alternative.
What can a farmer do?
In 2005/06 during negotiations with the Department and the European Commission, the UFU secured the inclusion of the ‘reasonable excuse’ clause in the Northern Ireland Nitrates (now nutrients) Action Programme. This caters for all exceptional conditions when farmers cannot fully comply with the rules, through no fault of their own. This clause has since had to be used in years when weather and ground conditions made compliance impossible by individual farmers but could also cover other issues such as major disease outbreaks. Farmers who are forced to spread when conditions are not suitable may be able to use the ‘reasonable excuse’ clause.
This also allows farmers on a case by case basis to spread beyond 15 October if a reasonable excuse can be shown. It is still an offence for farmers to spread slurry during the closed period however, where in exceptional circumstances and if reasonable excuse can be proved, a defence may be made for non-compliance with the closed period. We would strongly urge farmers to proceed with caution and ensure they have exhausted every other appropriate avenue for dealing with slurry. This does however offer more flexibility than a time-bound extension to the dates. The “reasonable clause” should be used as a last resort, and it would be advisable to speak with your UFU technical officer. The UFU reasonable excuse template is available to UFU members from UFU HQ or local offices.
What are reasonable steps to manage the situation?
Before spreading during the closed period, farmers should take all reasonable steps to manage the situation. In assessing whether a farmer has taken “all reasonable steps”, NIEA would consider several factors including:
- Has the farmer met the minimum legal requirements for slurry storage i.e., 26 weeks livestock manure storage capacity for pig and poultry enterprises and 22 weeks for other enterprises?
- Has slurry been properly managed outside the closed period and been spread as appropriate when conditions permitted?
- Is clean storm water, e.g., roof water, diverted away from slurry tanks?
- Has the farmer exhausted reasonable alternatives such as renting extra storage space or using straw bedding?
- Has the farmer taken additional steps to protect against water pollution such as increasing the distance between where slurry is spread and watercourses, spread on flatter fields etc?
- Has the farmer only spread the minimum amount that is necessary to provide sufficient capacity to help manage until the end of the closed period?
- Farmers in zone one of the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme who have run-off risk maps available online should also use these as a guide to minimise risks.
Do I need to register if I am going to spread during the closed period?
It is NOT a requirement to ‘register’ with NIEA/DAERA to use a ‘reasonable excuse’. Neither is it a requirement to ‘notify’ intended slurry spreading during the closed period.
What happens if NIEA are required to inspect a farm which has been spreading organic manures during the closed period?
If it comes to the attention of NIEA that a farmer has spread slurry over the closed period, NIEA officers will do the following:
i. Visit the farm in question
ii. Check for evidence of water pollution arising from the spreading
iii. Ascertain the circumstances that led to the farmer spreading slurry or manure during the closed period (“reasonable excuse”). UFU can assist with this.
iv. Confirm the evidence that the farmer had taken all reasonable steps to manage the situation and had no alternative. Such evidence would include that the farmer had sufficient slurry storage under normal conditions, and had been properly managing slurry outside the closed period. Clean storm water, e.g., roof water should be diverted from slurry tanks.
v. Check if slurry spreading to land had been done responsibly and that the farmer had adhered to conditions in the Nutrients Action Programme 2019-22. In addition, it will be expected that slurry had been spread on low risk land and that additional steps had been taken to protect watercourses. It would also be expected that farmers would not totally empty tanks – they should only remove enough slurry to provide adequate containment for immediate needs.
The UFU would recommend that farmers have all nitrates paperwork in order and complete the UFU reasonable excuse template. Having dated photos of ground conditions, showing full tanks and rainfall data would be beneficial.
Is there a spreading deadline under these ‘reasonable excuse’ circumstances?
No, there is no deadline for the spreading of slurry under this clause. The important issue is that a farmer can prove exceptional circumstances and ‘reasonable excuse’ (through records), and that slurry is managed responsibly to minimise risks to waterways and avoid potential animal welfare and water pollution problems.
How do I record the information required?
To be able to rely on the ‘reasonable excuse’, if inspected, a farmer MUST provide a record of evidence showing that they had taken all reasonable steps to manage the situation and had no alternative other than to spread during the closed period. The UFU has a template form which is available at UFUHQ or local group offices which can be used by members.
The UFU is encouraging any farmers who plan to spread during the closed period, to carefully fill out the UFU template and to provide as much information as possible and to take additional precautions when spreading to ensure no pollution will be caused. Any UFU member who needs to discuss further or help with the records element should contact UFU HQ or their local UFU technical officer.