‘Reasonable excuse’ slurry ban reprieve for struggling Northern farmers

Under pressure Northern farmers have been given an eleventh hour reprieve from the slurry ban, but union officials are warning farmers only to continue spreading as a “last resort” and to act responsibly to avoid further regulations.

Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) officials are urging farmers who need to spread slurry to make use of the ‘reasonable excuse‘ clause in the Nitrates Action Programme (NAP) regulations.

Farmers can use ‘reasonable excuse’ to spread slurry during the closed period without notifying the department or NIEA (Northern Ireland Environment Agency); but they must only use the clause in ‘exceptional’ cases – such as this year’s flooding.

However, officials warn it’s not a licence for farmers to take things into their own hands.

Farmers are asked to act responsibly, to spread on flat land where possible and to wait until the weather dries up. They are also being asked to spread just enough to maintain their slurry storage until the ban ends, for fear that further legislation is added to the existing regulations.

‘Stressful situation’

Extreme floods have put farmers across the country under added pressure this year. Despite the risks to their own safety, many have been pushing on for weeks to desperately try and empty their tanks in time for this month’s deadline.

In the Republic of Ireland, the refusal to extend the deadline in light of this year’s persistent rain was branded “reckless in the extreme”. Flexibility has been granted, with farmers encouraged to apply for an extension before Saturday, October 14.

The slurry ban was first introduced in Northern Ireland in 2007 and has been heavily criticised by farmers since. They warn that the changeable Irish weather makes “farming by calendar” impossible.

UFU says the so-called 'reasonable excuse' clause allows farmers to continue spreading slurry as a 'last resort'

However, this year, the UFU is reassuring farmers that if they are unable to get their slurry out before October 15, they may be able to spread slurry during the closed period under the ‘reasonable excuse’ clause in the Northern Ireland Nitrates Action Programme (NAP) – a clause it fought for during the 2005/2006 NAP negotiations.

The UFU said the wet weather has made it “nearly impossible” to spread slurry safely this year.

“It is a very stressful situation and we have been inundated with calls. We have been monitoring the ground and weather conditions since early summer and have been in regular contact with DAERA and NIEA to highlight the difficulties facing farmers.

“It covers exceptional circumstances when, through no fault of their own, farmers cannot fully comply with the rules,” UFU President Barclay Bell said.

‘Reasonable excuse clause is a last resort’

“The reasonable excuse clause is as a last resort. No farmer wants to risk their basic payment by spreading slurry during the closed period. However, the current ground and weather conditions are making compliance impossible and some farmers may be left with no other choice.

It is better to spread slurry during the closed period under this clause at a time when conditions are more favourable than rush and risk a farm accident or pollution.

Farmers do not have to notify DAERA or NIEA before spreading under the reasonable excuse clause but they must keep detailed records.

They must outline how they managed their slurry before the closed period, the weather and ground conditions, how much storage they have, and that they have exhausted all other options.

“We recommend including photos or videos of weather and ground conditions and rainfall data. The UFU has created a NIEA-approved template that farmers can use to record this information and staff can assist members with completing this. This must be available if you are inspected by NIEA,” Bell added.

‘An excuse for more legislation’

However, Bell warns those forced to spread slurry during the closed period should take extra precautions to prevent accidental pollution.

“We do not want to give the EU Commission any excuse to impose more legislation. Being able to show we acted responsibly in these difficult conditions is our best defence. I would, however, encourage the EU Commission and government authorities to be mindful of the stress farmers are currently under.

“Farmers are the first friends of the earth and since the introduction of the closed spreading period we have made every attempt to comply with the regulations. However, farming by calendar dates poses a real challenge when it comes to the practicalities of running a farm and unpredictable weather.”

Department advice

A statement from DAERA read: “Under exceptional circumstances, beyond the control of and not foreseeable by an individual farmer, a limited amount of slurry can be spread during the closed period. If slurry must be spread during this time, evidence should be available to demonstrate to NIEA that all reasonable steps were taken to manage the situation, and that there was no alternative.

“If slurry has to be spread under exceptional circumstances, it should be on low-risk land and all usual spreading conditions followed. Tanks should not be emptied. Only enough slurry should be spread to leave adequate storage for the remainder to the closed period.”