The Government’s intentions to designate the whole of Wales a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone have been widely welcomed by environmental organisations, but farming unions the NFU Cymru and FUW remain strongly opposed, arguing for a targeted approach.
The impact of nitrate pollution, the result of farmers using fertilisers, manure and slurry to add nitrogen to soil to improve crop quality and give higher yields, has led to significant environmental damage according to independent scientific research, with most of the pollution coming from land run-off entering rivers and lakes.
The effects include poorer water quality, deoxygenation and fish dying. Nitrate pollution can also affect drinking water sources once it enters groundwater.
Once an area is designated an NVZ farmers have to monitor and report in more detail how they tackle water safety and manage their use of fertilisers and slurry. Many will have to improve their farm’s infrastructure, which across Wales could cost up to £360m according to the Welsh Government’s own Regulatory Impact Assessment, with annual compliance costs on top
The Government has said the new rules will ensure all farmers understand what actions they need to take “to join those who are already protecting Wales’ rich environment and managing animal manures responsibly. Farmers who already operate to recommended standards, seeing a minimal impact to their practices.”
When announcing the introduction of the Wales-wide NVZ on January 27, minister for the environment and rural affairs, Lesley Griffiths MS, said she was “determined to act to protect the Welsh countryside, while supporting our farmers that want to do the right thing.
“We continue to face a rate of more than three agricultural pollution incidents per week, and against such a backdrop, we are bound to do all we can protect the public and the environment.”
She added that she had “given the industry every opportunity over the past four years to address the issue and bring those who are polluting our rivers in line with the many farmers who care for the environment.”
An additional trigger for the new measures were a number of serious incidents in 2020 which included the pollution of 5km of the Afon Dulais river in Carmarthenshire, resulting in more than 2,400 fish being poisoned and many of the river’s invertebrate species – essential to maintain the waterway’s ecosystem – being lost. Another incident in Ceridigion involved a farmer spreading slurry which poisoned a 4km stretch of the Afon Peris.
Despite the environmental damage caused by such incidents, the 1 April start-date for the phasing in of the pan-Wales-NVZ has seen farming unions up in arms over the plan. The Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) said the approach was “draconian and unimaginative” with the National Farmers Union in Wales (NFU Cymru) describing it as “indiscriminate and punitive”.
The unions have appealed for the Government to encourage a voluntary approach, saying the new measures are disproportionate to the scale of the issue, will put huge financial pressure on farmers, particularly tenants and new entrants to the industry.
Meanwhile the political fallout around the Government’s plan has continued to grow amid accusations of betrayal and broken promises. Senedd Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies has accused minister Lesley Griffiths of betraying the farming community after promising any new Wales-wide regulation would only be introduced following the Covid crisis.
Mr Davies, who believes a voluntary code endorsed by Natural Resources Wales would be a more effective way of reducing pollution incidents, told The National: ”It’s about a point of principle. The minister stood up seven times last year in the Senedd and said she would not introduce these regulations until the Covid crisis was over and done with.
“We clearly aren’t out of the pandemic yet, and yet the minister is hell-bent on introducing these regulations. Irrespective of where you sit on whether the regulations are good or bad, the principle of a minister standing on the parliament floor and giving a commitment not to do something and then breaking that commitment is hugely significant.”
With the introduction of Nitrate Vulenerable Zones being a directive originally introduced by the European Union to protect against nitrate pollution across member states, Brexit has given the issue an added dimension.
FUW president Mr Glyn Roberts said: “The blank sheet of devolution and Brexit allows the Welsh Government to design a bespoke system which would target problem areas, without being disproportionate and costing the farming industry hundreds of millions – including in areas where there are no problems.”
Mr Roberts added that the Government’s plan made “a mockery of devolution, and marks a betrayal of the principles of evidence-based decision making…a concerning pattern of lazily copying and pasting policies cooked up in London or further afield.”
Under existing arrangements, NVZs account for only 2.4% of land area in Wales. Meanwhile Plaid Cymru has said both Conservative and Labour government policies in Westminster and the Senedd were having a devastating impact on Welsh farmers.
Cefin Campbell, Plaid Cymru’s Senedd candidate for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, said: “At a time when the UK Tory government has slashed £137million from the support for Welsh agriculture, the Labour Welsh Government plans to make the whole of Wales an NVZ despite fierce opposition from farming unions.”
The Welsh Government has pledged £11.5m of capital funding to support farm businesses to improve their nutrient management infrastructure as well as operating the Sustainable Production Grant scheme which has supported over 500 farms with £22m of infrastructure improvement up to September 2020.
The Government has said that initial roll-out of the Wales-wide NVZ will take the form of “good practice requirements”, and include transitional periods, financial assistance, guidance and a ‘knowledge transfer programme’.
The Senedd will debate the new regulations on Wednesday 3 March, along with an opposition motion tabled by North Wales Plaid Cymru MS, Llyr Gruffydd, to scrap them.