The Sustainable Water Network (SWAN), an umbrella group of 25 environmental organisations, has welcomed the impending cut in the limit of organic nitrogen (N) allowed under the nitrates derogation.

Last week the Minister of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, confirmed that the European Commission would not revise any part of the the agreed regulations around Ireland’s derogation.

This mean that the limit of the derogation – currently 250kg of organic N per hectare – will be cut to 220kgN/ha from January across large swathes of the country where water quality is at its poorest.

The announcement that the commission had closed off any possibility of the derogation conditions being revisited to avoid this cut has been met with a strong response from farm organisations, who are concerned over the impact this reduction will have on dairy farmer margins.

However, environmental organisations have welcomed the development, with SWAN saying that “science and the law must be followed on nitrate pollution from agriculture”.

SWAN criticised the government for what it called the “continual lack of government leadership in planning for such changes, and failure to prepare and support farmers in delivering them…especially since the law and science have clearly flagged, for a considerable amount of time, that the changes would be necessary”.

Sineád O’Brien, coordinator of SWAN, commented: “Approximately half of our rivers and lakes are now polluted, and two-thirds of our estuaries… It’s clear from the science that agriculture is by far the biggest pressure on our waters.

“The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] has reported that nitrate loads have been increasing since 2013, correlating with an increase in the dairy herd, and that these loads are too high, with no indication that they are decreasing.”

O’Brien added: “The commission was clear 18 months ago that a reduction in the permitted level of nitrates that could be spread on derogation farms would be reduced in areas where there were ‘worsening trends, or a situation of pollution, or risk of pollution as regards nitrate concentrations’.”

The SWAN coordinator claimed that the government’s response in addressing nitrate losses to water from agriculture “has been an abject failure”.

She commented: “The fact that this seems to be coming as news to many farmers shows an abysmal lack of leadership on the part of the government and farming organisations, when the writing has been on the wall over the past decade regarding the need to address the link between dairy intensification and escalating water pollution.

“Support for farmers should have been made long ago to transition away from derogation, but instead it was encouraged, and now some are facing real difficulties in order to meet these changes.”

O’Brien’s fellow SWAN member, Dr. Elaine McGoff, the group’s vice-president (and head of advocacy for An Taisce) commented: “The minister and farming organisations now should be greatly strengthening water protection measures rather than seeking to get a further reduction in 2026, which is far from certain considering the current level of pollution.

“Instead, they should be focussing on meeting our legal requirement under the Water Framework Directive, as committed to in the Programme for Government, to have all our waters healthy by 2027. Farmers need the supports for this transition now,” Dr. McGoff added.