Farmers will have to fence off cattle from streams and rivers by 2021

Farmers will have to fence off cattle to prevent them accessing rivers and streams as part of new measures to improve water quality, Seán McCárthaigh.

A review by two government departments of a programme to ensure Ireland complies with the EU Nitrates Directive has recommended that farmers on more intensively stocked farms must take measures to prevent contact between cattle and water sources on their land from January 1, 2021.

The review of the Nitrates Action Programme by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government said the deadline would give farmers the chance to plan fencing off cattle from watercourses and provide livestock with other drinking water sources.

The measure is expected to apply to 12,350 farms covering a total farmed area of around 675,000 hectares.

Farmers will also be required to ensure drinking points for livestock must be located at least 20m from any rivers or streams by 2021 as well as to take measures to ensure there is no runoff from roadways and tracks into water sources.

A review group which examined 28 submissions from farming and environmental groups and local authorities, ruled out increasing buffer zones around rivers, streams, potable water and lakes as “unworkable”.

Despite requests from farmers and farming representative bodies, the group also decided not to alter the existing periods for a ban on the spreading of organic fertilisers. “The proposed new action programme includes measures aimed at further strengthening the protection of water and attaining optimum soil fertility is consistent with both efficient agricultural production and effective water quality protection,” the group said.

The group has recommended a relaxation of existing limits on the use of phosphorus because of sub-optimal soil on 3,000 farms. For similar reasons, it is also proposed to allow some farmers to use higher levels of pig manure than is currently allowed to reduce reliance on chemical fertilisers. The review concluded that water quality in Ireland could be best improved through “changing behaviours at farm level”.

It claimed supporting farmers with technical advice on the spreading of nutrients on their land was “likely to be the single area with the greatest potential to improve outcomes for water quality on Irish farms.”

The first Nitrates Action Programme was put into operation in 2006 to give effect to the EU Nitrates Directive and it was subsequently revised following reviews in 2010 and 2013.

The Nitrates Action Programme, which applies to almost 139,600 farm holdings in the Republic, is the key agricultural measure for preventing and reducing water pollution from nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus arising from agricultural sources.

It includes legally binding phosphorus limits for all crops. It also imposes limits on farm stocking rates and on the use of nitrogen and phosphorus as well as minimum storage requirements for livestock manure.

Teagasc research shows big changes in nutrient management of farms since the first Nitrates Action Programme in 2006.

However, in a recent report on water quality, the Environmental Protection Agency said elevated levels of nutrients in waters “continues to be the most widespread water quality problem in Ireland.”

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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