Nitrate pollution in Wales: what’s the situation now?

Published 19/07/2019   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Addressing the long-standing problem of nitrate pollution has become a contentious issue. This blog post outlines the current situation.

In November 2018, the Welsh Government announced plans to introduce Wales-wide regulations to tackle nitrate pollution from the agricultural industry. Lesley Griffiths, then-Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, explained the regulations ‘will enable firm, consistent and effective enforcement […] to address the significant problems we are facing’.

The impact of nitrate pollution

Agricultural practices often use fertilisers, manure and slurry containing nitrates to add nitrogen to the soil. This is to improve plant development, and subsequently yield and crop quality. However, in excess, nitrates can lead to significant and persistent environmental damage.

The majority of nitrate pollution comes from diffuse agricultural sources (many single sources combined), through land run-off. Excess nitrates can enter surface water bodies, such as lakes and rivers, and cause eutrophication. Eutrophication occurs when nutrients enrich aquatic plants and algae, causing oxygen levels in the water to drop (deoxygenation), water quality to decrease and aquatic animals to die. Nitrate pollution can also affect drinking water sources if it enters groundwater.

According to a Welsh Government consultation, around 61% of agricultural pollution incidents per year between 2010 and 2015 stemmed from dairy farms.

Current legislation on nitrate pollution

Under the EU Nitrates Directive (91/676/EC), the UK must:

  1. Identify water bodies that are polluted or at risk of nitrate pollution;
  2. Designate these areas as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs);
  3. Establish voluntary Codes of Good Agricultural Practice for farmers to follow;
  4. Establish compulsory Action Programmes for farmers to follow; and
  5. Monitor, report on, and revise (if necessary) NVZs every four years.

The Nitrates Directive is currently implemented in Wales through The Water Resources (Control of Pollution) (Silage, Slurry and Agriculture Fuel Oil) (Wales) Regulations 2010 and The Nitrate Pollution Prevention (Wales) Regulations 2013 (as amended).Natural Resources Wales (NRW) enforces the regulations, including the Action Programme.

The Action Programme measures (APMs) include:

  • Controlling the dates (‘closed periods’) and conditions under which nitrogen fertiliser and organic materials are spread;
  • Having sufficient facilities for storage of manures and slurries;
  • Limiting nitrogen fertiliser applications to the crop requirement only;
  • Limiting quantities of organic material applied per hectare per year;
  • Limiting the total quantity of organic material plus excreta applied at farm level;
  • Controlling the areas where nitrogen fertilisers (both organic and inorganic) can be applied;
  • Controls on application methods; and
  • Preparing plans and keeping adequate farm records.

To comply with the regulations, farmers can receive financial support and advice from Farming Connect and the Rural Development Programme.

New Welsh regulations on NVZs

The most recent review of NVZs was undertaken between 2015 and 2016, with NRW recommending designation of seven new areas, including for eutrophic waters, groundwaters and surface waters.

In a Welsh Government consultation in 2016, respondents were asked if they preferred:

  1. Continuing the current approach to NVZ designation. This would result in more APMs and 8% land area in Wales being designated (increasing from 2.4% in 2012); or
  2. Designating the whole of Wales as a NVZ.

Nearly 60% of respondents supported the ‘whole territory’ designation.

Lesley Griffiths gave a written statement on the consultation in December 2017, saying she was ‘minded to introduce a whole Wales approach’. This was based on consultation responses and the views of the Brexit Ministerial Roundtable and its Land Management Sub-group, and the Wales Land Management Forum Sub-group on Agricultural Pollution.

In November 2018, Lesley Griffiths confirmed that she would be bringing in new regulations for the whole of Wales, which would include provisions for:

  • Nutrient management planning;
  • Sustainable fertiliser applications linked to the requirement of the crop;
  • Protection of water from pollution related to when, where and how fertilisers are spread; and
  • Manure storage standards.

In Plenary on 17 July 2019, Lesley Griffiths said that she would be introducing the regulations in January 2020. The latest report from the Wales Land Management Forum Sub-Group in March 2019, stated that a Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) was underway and that a Nutrient Management Planning trial was being planned.

Stakeholder views on the proposals

In her announcement on the new measures, Lesley Griffiths addressed concerns of the agricultural community:

…regulations will replicate good practice measures which many farmers across Wales are already implementing routinely and for whom very little will change as a result of my statement.

Previously, many agricultural stakeholders have tended to disagree, with this statement. A petition, first considered by the Petitions Committee in January 2017, called for no further action on NVZs in Wales, stating it would ‘put enormous pressure on an already crippled dairy farming industry’.

Some agricultural stakeholders found the proposed all-Wales plans to be a disproportionate response to the evidence and scale of the problem. At the NFU conference in February 2019, President of NFU Cymru, John Davies, explained that compliancy costs and complexities were worrying, and outweighed the benefits to water quality, especially given uncertainty around Brexit. NFU Cymru confirmed that its lawyers had raised concerns with the Welsh Government about the ‘lawfulness of the proposed approach’.

At a Farmers' Union of Wales (FUW) meeting in March 2019, the Chairman of the FUW Milk and Dairy Produce Committee, Dai Miles, described the proposals as a ‘draconian blanket approach’. He estimated that the number of farms covered by the ‘costly and restrictive’ regulations would rise from 600 to more than 24,000.

Environmental groups have long called for action. A joint response (PDF, 435KB) to the previous statement (December 2017), in which Lesley Griffiths was ‘minded to introduce a whole Wales approach’, saw environmental groups (including RSPB Cymru and WWF Cymru) welcome the announcement, albeit with disappointment at the lack of progress made.

Confirmation of the regulations will no doubt be welcomed by environmental groups, but some still have concerns.

The Angling Trust has given a ‘cautious welcome’ to the latest announcement. It raised issues around the lack of regulation on soil erosion in the proposed plans. It also raised concerns around enforcement in light of reductions in NRW’s budget. Stakeholders have highlighted that the benefits of the new regulations may not be felt for several years, given they will not be in place until January 2020 and will have transitional periods to allow farmers time to adapt.

The Sustainable Food Trust was also in favour of the Welsh Government’s proposals. It highlighted its ongoing sustainable farming projects and reiterated that it called for a whole Wales NVZ when giving evidence to a Defra consultation.

In Plenary on 27 March 2019, Lesley Griffiths asserted the increased agricultural pollution incidents are:

… going to have an effect on the work we've got under way, for instance, on sustainable brand values for Welsh products, so it needs sorting and it needs sorting now.

Article by Holly Tipper, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales

Senedd Research acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Holly Tipper by the Natural Environment Research Council which enabled this article to be completed.