Tackling Nitrate Pollution in Wales

Published 21/10/2016   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

The Welsh Government is consulting on Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) in Wales. The consultation focuses on measures for reducing water pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources. The Welsh Government plans to introduce new Regulations in 2017.


Diffuse water pollution is a significant problem in some parts of Wales. It is caused by many small or scattered sources where pollutants are carried into water bodies by rainwater run-off from urban and rural land. This impacts the ecology of lakes, rivers and coastal waters, the quality of groundwater and the costs of water supplies.

The EU Nitrates Directive (91/676/EC) aims to reduce and prevent water pollution by nitrates from agriculture. Compliance with this Directive also directly impacts on compliance with the Water Framework Directive and Bathing Water Directive. Member States are required to identify surface and groundwater bodies that are, or could be, high in nitrates from agricultural sources. Once such a water body has been identified, all land draining into that water body is designated as a NVZ and an Action Programme of ‘Good Agricultural Practice’ will apply to that area.

While the UK voted to leave the EU in June, the UK must continue to comply with EU legislation until such time as it formally leaves, which currently could be sometime in 2019.

The NVZ Action Programme includes:

  • 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 applied at farm level;
  • controlling the areas where nitrogen fertilisers can be applied;
  • controls on application methods; and
  • preparing plans and keeping adequate farm records.

Water bodies in NVZs must then be monitored every four years for nitrate levels and eutrophication. Eutrophication is where the increase in nitrate or phosphate in the water encourages algae growth, which forms a bloom over the water surface. This prevents sunlight reaching other water plants, which then die. Bacteria break down the dead plants and use up the oxygen in the water so the water body may become lifeless.

The outcome of the NVZ review is used to inform the decision to either continue with discrete NVZ designations or to apply the Action Programme throughout the whole of the Member State or Region (in this case Wales) and also to inform amendments to the measures in the Action Programme. On designation of specific areas of land as NVZs, only landowners within that area must implement the Action Programme measures (with landowners in other areas being subject only to other national baseline standards). If the Action Programme is applied throughout Wales, all landowners in Wales must comply. Conversely if the Action Programme is not applied throughout Wales, NVZs must be designated using specific tests and reviewed every four years.

The Nitrate Pollution Prevention (Wales) Regulations 2013 make provision for implementing and enforcing the Nitrates Directive in Wales. This includes designating NVZs and setting out what farmers with land in NVZs need to do to reduce nitrate pollution. Natural Resources Wales (NRW) is responsible for enforcing the Regulations, including the Action Programmes measures.

The last four yearly NVZ review undertaken by the Welsh Government in 2012 resulted in the designation of 2.4% of the land area of Wales as a NVZ and introduced improved measures in the Action Programme that farms located within NVZs must comply with. Approximately 750 farm holdings are currently subject to pollution controls under the Nitrate Action Programme in Wales.

Rural Development Programme

Compliance with the Nitrates Directive can have costs for farmers in NVZs, for example investment in slurry storage facilities, however, there is currently support available to farmers. Under the Rural Development Plan (RDP) for Wales (2014-2020), eligible farmers can access 80 per cent funding towards nutrient management planning and advice on the NVZ Regulations through Farming Connect. Financial support is also available through the RDP Sustainable Production Grant Scheme to improve resource and business efficiency.

The Welsh Government’s NVZ Consultation

The consultation closes on 23 December 2016 and asks for opinions on:

  • options for future designation of NVZs – a targeted approach to designation of discrete NVZ areas or applying the action programme throughout the whole of Wales.
  • proposals to modify the Action Programme measures implemented within the NVZs.

The consultation states that adopting the targeted approach would mean an increase in the total area designated from 2.4% to approximately 8% which includes those areas newly identified by NRW. The maps on the Welsh Government website show the proposed NVZ areas in Wales and show detail down to field level.

Stakeholder Responses

FUW has urged members to respond to the NVZ consultation warning that a number of the proposals put forward ‘will seriously impact farmers in Wales’:

The FUW remains resolutely against the option to apply the action programme throughout the whole of Wales as this would require all landowners to comply with the NVZ action programme measures. There is a distinct lack of evidence for a whole territory approach and the difficulties and costs associated with regulatory compliance for farms whose land does not drain into nitrate polluted waters, makes this option both unwarranted and unreasonably excessive.

NFU Cymru is also ‘very much opposed to the proposed designations’ and will be putting forward ‘a firm and robust response to the consultation based on detailed scrutiny of the evidence base underpinning designation’.

Environmental campaigners have argued that the Action Programme is important to prevent water courses from becoming further polluted. RSPB Cymru has stated that (PDF:594 KB) they wish to encourage more sustainable land management that contributes to achieving Water Framework Directive objectives, including more extensive farming systems.

Article by Katy Orford, National Assembly for Wales Research Service