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What does the Environment Agency's new Regulatory Position Statement on the spreading of organic manure mean for farmers this autumn?

View profile for Rebecca Ironmonger
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For many farmers, the spreading of manure or sludge from water sewage treatment plants is an essential part of the process for preparing soil for crops and for disposing of excess manure which they do not have the capacity to store. The Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018, better known as the Farming Rules for Water, provide a series of statutory requirements and restrictions for the spreading of organic manure on agricultural land.

One of the most important provisions of the Farming Rules for Water is Rule 1, found at Regulation 4(1) which requires land managers to plan each application of organic manure or manufactured fertiliser, taking into account the weather forecast and conditions, so that it does not exceed the needs of the soil or the crop on that land or give rise to a significant risk of agricultural diffuse pollution. For example, the Environment Agency’s view is that generally nitrogen is not required by the soil or crops post-harvest and fertiliser, organic or otherwise should not be spread in the autumn or winter.

The new Regulatory Position Statement 252 (“RPS”) published by the Environment Agency (“EA”) on 3 August 2021 allows land managers to spread organic manure on agricultural land where the application of the slurry, sludge or other organic material would exceed the needs of the soil or the crop on that land and certain conditions in the RPS are met. This relaxing of Rule 1 is in place until 1 March 2022.

In theory, this means that where a farmer has an excess amount of slurry or has a contract with a water company for the spreading of sludge from a waste treatment plant, they will be allowed to spread that material on their land this autumn where the Farming Rules for Water would not allow them to do so normally.

In practice, however, the RPS may not be the positive step forward it appears at first glance. In order to take advantage of the RPS, the application of the slurry, sludge or other manure must comply with the conditions set out in the RPS and there are several procedural steps you must take, including telling the EA what you are doing.

Can I spread slurry or sludge under the RPS?

In order to utilise the RPS, you must:-

  1. Ensure every application of manure is planned
  2. Have a contingency plan which shows spreading under the RPS is your only option
  3. Only spread on land with low risk of leaching and run off
  4. Use an application rate that allows no more than 5kg/ha of nitrate-nitrogen to be leached
  5. Only spread when weather conditions allow
  6. Contact the EA to tell them you are using the RPS

We find it concerning that this RPS has been published so close to the time when most farmers will want to spread slurry or sludge, particularly as in the case of the latter, there will be agreements with water companies to consider. The requirement for contacting the EA to tell them what you are doing will inevitably lead to increased visits by the EA and potential for enforcement action if paperwork is not totally up to scratch.

With the focus on the spreading of fertiliser by the EA highlighted by the introduction of the RPS, now is the time to review your plans and procedures for your farm regardless of whether the RPS will apply to you.

If you are concerned about the rules for spreading organic manure or fertiliser, both under the general Regulations or the new RPS, and how they will apply to you and your farm, please contact Rebecca Ironmonger  in the Regulatory Team and she will be happy to advise.

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