I thank the independent Member for Lagan Valley for his question. He is looking very well in the corner there.
The current nutrient actions programme (NAP) regulations for the period 2019-2022 implement a range of controls on livestock manures and chemical fertilisers. In Northern Ireland, NAP has been in place since 2007. It is reviewed and revised every four years and applies to all farms. The measures are underpinned by scientific evidence, including local research by the Agri-food and Biosciences Institute.
Key measures include a closed period during the winter months, when slurry cannot be spread, and no spreading when soil and weather conditions are unsuitable. There are limits to how much slurry can be spread. There are non-spread zones beside waterways and a minimum slurry storage capacity requirement for livestock farms. The NAP for 2019-2022 includes additional measures. These aim to address pressures on water quality, particularly for increasing phosphorus levels, which have been evident over recent years. Other measures include a requirement to use low-emission slurry spreading equipment in certain circumstances.
The most recent water quality data indicates that the vast majority of surface freshwater and groundwater in Northern Ireland continues to have nitrate levels well below the limits in the EU nitrates directive. However, excess phosphorus is the main cause of water quality problems in our rivers and lakes. My Department recognises the good work done by farmers since the NAP was introduced in 2007. Soil phosphorus is, however, often above the agronomic optimum, so there is more work to be done on reducing phosphorus inputs from livestock feeds and chemical fertilisers. Ensuring best practice and compliance with the NAP measures will reduce the risk of phosphorus run-off in the waterways.
I thank the Minister for that very comprehensive answer. I have no problem with the regulations, but I have some problems with their enforcement. Does he agree that the punishment for careless, or even illegal, behaviour or transgression of the regulations should fit the crime and, perhaps, should be greater than is currently the case?
That is a matter for the courts. The courts are independent of the Department, and the Department, through the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) will take the prosecutions. The NIEA is not the prosecutor and cannot determine what punishments people will get. Some people have said that that situation demonstrates the need for an independent agency, but it is the courts that make those decisions, not an independent agency, not the NIEA and not the Department or anybody else. If we are not satisfied, that needs to be addressed with the Lord Chief Justice as opposed to a political Minister.
I spoke at length earlier about the different challenges faced by farmers. Another factor that makes life difficult for farmers is the calendar. Does the Minister envisage that his Department will have any additional flexibility on the precise timing of the open and closed seasons for slurry spreading?
The nitrates directive was brought in by the European Union, which has a great way of applying blunt instruments to local problems.
I would prefer to apply local solutions to local problems.
February was wholly unsuitable for spreading slurry, except for three or four days at the start of the month, whilst January was an exceptionally good month and ideal for spreading slurry. We want to test this and see what latitude we have. Given that we are still locked into European Union directives as a result of the protocol, we want to see where we can stretch this. Farming by a calendar works only in an office in Brussels. It does not work in a field in County Tyrone, County Londonderry or County Down.
It is essential that farmers have the flexibility to spread slurry at times that are suitable. We have many small farms and, subsequently, many fields with plenty of hedges and open drains. Are the new measures, such as increasing buffer zones from 15 to 30 metres, making things slightly more unworkable?
Of course it will make it more difficult. If you have a small field, the buffer can create a problem. Some drains can be dry drains, so they are less of an issue. We need to ensure that there is less pollution of waterways while maximising nutrients going into the soil. Run-off is no good for farmers or the environment. We need to match the needs. That is why we are looking at soil analysis, which can demonstrate the appropriate amount of fertiliser and organic manures that farmers need to apply without overdoing it and it ending up in waterways.
Yes, that is certainly something that I want to look at. I have indicated to my departmental officials that things are not working as they are and we need to look at how we can change things. That will not be straightforward, but I am committed to engaging in work on that.
We have an unpredictable weather pattern, albeit that our weather seems to operate in cycles. We get cycles of dry weather followed by, generally, a longer period of wet weather. We need to make the best of it when the weather is good, and when the weather is not so good, it is not suitable to be spreading slurry.
We must give farmers a little more flexibility so that they can do a better job of protecting the environment than has been set out for us by the European Union. Consequently, we, locally, can make better decisions on this than have been handed down to us.