Between Directive and a hard place

Irish farmers deserve credit for how they have controlled the effluent from the livestock equivalent of 64 million humans. Instead, they get the Nitrates Directive, after 13 years of dithering. Stephen Cadogan reports.

FARMERS are the hidden stars of Ireland's Race Against Waste, the Department of the Environment's campaign which features TV ads showing a tidal wave of waste inundating us.

We have a history of litter and overflowing landfill dumps blotting the landscape. In Dublin, litter mountains built up in public protests over collection charges, and the streets of Cork have now been hit by a similar protest.

Our population of only five million on the island have excelled themselves in many ways, but we are not famous for tidiness and cleanliness, and the concept of recycling is revolutionary for us - unless you're a farmers.

According to the Department of the Environment, the pollution load from animals in Ireland is equivalent to 64 million humans. If the waste from those 64 million "animal-humans" was left to the care of our general citizenry and local authorities, we would long ago have become underground dwellers in a mile-deep layer of livestock effluent.

Instead, farmers have recycled waste efficiently, kept their corner relatively clean, and have successfully controlled an ocean of animal effluent, with the result that water quality in Ireland is better than that in the EU.

Some countries have cleaner water, but we still have higher than average water quality.

Perhaps it is fitting then that the EU threat to fine Ireland hundreds of thousands of euro per month for not yet implementing the Nitrates Directive is last on the list of eight environment law cases the EU is bringing against us.

In seven other cases, the Commission has sent Ireland final written warnings, and may refer these cases to the European Court of Justice, if there is no satisfactory response.

Ireland is on its last chance to upgrade waste-water treatment in Bray, Shanganagh, Howth, Letterkenny, Sligo and Tramore.

We are also on the steps of the European Court over malodours from urban waste-water treatment plants; disposal of construction waste from the Tynagh Mines in Co Galway; failure to remove waste from and restore wetlands in the Boyne Estuary special protection area; failure to report on use of ozone-depleting substances, including methyl bromide pesticide; failure to submit a plan to meet national emission limits for certain air pollutants; and for not correctly implementing an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive.

We are only at the first warning letter stage for the Nitrates Directive. But if we don't comply, we could face fines as early as next October. If farmers were asked, they might vote for the fines rather than face the full force of the Directive as early as next April. "It is ironic that the lead-in time for the proposals lasted from 1991 to 2004," said Senator Noel Coonan of Fine Gael, a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food which discussed the Nitrates Directive last week.

"During this period, little was done, apart from the introduction in 1996 of a code of agricultural practice to protect water from pollution by nitrates."

Mr Coonan said the majority of farmers are as concerned as the rest of society about the environment, water quality and what is best for the country. But he said farmers are bewildered by a directive which cuts across established farming methods recommended by Government agencies.

Mr Coonan took Environment Department officials to task in the Oireachtas Joint Committee, when they said no farmer in his right mind would spread fertiliser in September or October. He pointed out that farmers have regularly been advised by Teagasc to spread fertiliser into September.

The North Tipperary Senator recalled Department of Agriculture and Food advice during fodder crisis years to spread fertiliser and to take a late crop of silage in November and even December. "Current farming practices promote 365-day grazing," he said. "The proposed blanket calendar ban does not make sense to the rural community. For example, the weather in early January can be good and conducive to growth and spreading. From January 16 onwards, however, it can be bad, yet one is permitted to spread slurry. A more flexible attitude is needed. The onus should be on the farming community to adhere to the principle of refraining from spreading slurry when the weather forecast is bad."

CAVAN Monaghan TD Seymour Crawford said: "We must be realistic and make sure we do not introduce laws or allow the European Union to impose laws that will mean the end to commercial agriculture as we recognise it."

He told the Oireachtas Joint Committee: "I want to give an example of a good farmer in Co Cavan who has carried out work on his farm and only has to cut back 10% on his cows, but he has to close his pig unit. That is the reality of how this thing will affect farmers."

Effectively, much of the activity on the country's 140,000 farms will become illegal in six weeks if a Nitrates Directive action programme is agreed.

There has been a voluntary code of practice for handling agricultural effluent since 1996. However, disregarding it is not an offence, unless a specific offence can be proved in law, which is extremely difficult, when dealing with water quality. "It is often said that, at present, in law, no 'rules of the road' apply to agricultural pollution," said John Sadlier, principal officer in the Environment Department, addressing the Oireachtas Committee on the Nitrates Directive. "It is, of course, an offence to cause pollution, which, however, requires a very high level of evidence and proof. As often as not, there are practices, for example, spreading slurry on land when it is very wet or when heavy rain is forecast, where it is virtually certain that almost all of that will end up in a watercourse. The spreading of slurry on land in the most inappropriate of circumstances is not an offence in itself. It is an activity which clearly creates a very high risk of causing water pollution. It is like drunk driving or speeding. However, until the pollution occurs, no offence has been committed. This is the purpose of the whole process of providing a statutory basis to promote and achieve good farming practice and to be able to back it up by making it an offence to carry out activities which create a high risk of causing water pollution."

Many farmers may have to cut cattle numbers because of the Nitrates Directive. If they are producing more than 170kg of organic nitrogen per hectare, reducing herds is the only alternative to building slurry storage facilities, which few farmers can afford. The directive is most worrying for pig, poultry and intensive dairy farmers.

The European Commission wants six months storage capacity for manure on all pig farms. Their extra waste storage costs could be substantial, and they may have to secure new outlets for the spreading of some of their slurry. Land spreading of slurry is the only feasible way of dealing with Ireland's huge quantities of livestock manure.

The directive would permit only special machines used for band spreading, direct injection and all the more recent technologies, which are much more expensive than the vacuum tankers with backsplash plates. The upward facing splash plate will be banned, and the umbilical cord system used by many farmers is being specifically prohibited.

The directive will also require farmers to deal with soiled water from farmyards. Rainwater must be collected and sent directly into the nearest stream or drain. If it falls on the ground, it becomes soiled water and may be improperly channelled into slurry tanks, which should be for slurry only.

One of the other irksome restrictions facing Irish farmers is that no fertiliser can be applied near water courses, whether rivers or lakes or bore holes.

There seems to be no technological way out of the Nitrates Directive. Anaerobic digestion of animal manure is already used on many Irish farms. Unfortunately, it does not reduce the amount of waste which must be disposed of at the end of the process. However, there may be scope to reduce pollution by matching cattle feeds to animal requirements. Much progress has already been made by using phytase enzyme in feeds, so that less phosphorous ends up in the manure from pigs and poultry.

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