I am very pleased with the findings of the evaluation of my Department's soil sampling pilot schemes. The pilots included soil collection and analysis over three water catchments — upper Bann, Colebrooke and Strule — and in one open element that was available Province-wide. In addition, lidar risk-mapping was provided to farmers in upper Bann and parts of Colebrooke.
The evaluation of the pilots highlighted a number of key findings, including that the provision of individual field information for farmers helped to drive behaviour change in nutrient management practices. Applying nutrients to meet crop need is a central tenet of why soil testing and nutrient management planning are important. Improved nutrient management can contribute to improved water quality and can also have economic benefits for farmers.
A NI-wide programme could provide government with invaluable baseline information for prioritising future interventions. Collectively, the pilots constituted a publicly funded intervention of £2·261 million, in which 1,613 farms, with fields spanning over 49,711 hectares, had soil samples collected and analysed. The results from the piloting approach are helping to inform future direction and policy development in relation to soil health and future farm-support measures. Officials are therefore working on a business case for a potential NI-wide soil nutrient health scheme. That scheme would provide farmers with the nutrient status of their fields, which would assist them to make best practice decisions on nutrient requirements. A baseline on Northern Ireland soil status could then be used for spatial nutrient management planning and to inform the development and implementation of future agri-support schemes.
I thank the Minister for his answer and agree with him that better soil and nutrient management is key for farmers. Obviously, the pilot has a very important role to play in assessing the value of soil testing. You referred to the pilot being rolled out in the rest of Northern Ireland, but, given the need to increase the bottom lines of farmers and protect the environment, what is the timeline for that?
The soil evaluation is critical if we are going to ensure that we can meet the challenges to the environment and ensure that our water quality is as high as possible. The Member represents the Mid Ulster area, which includes a large swathe of Lough Neagh. Lough Neagh has suffered from eutrophication as a consequence of phosphate run-off from the land. Therefore, farmers applying the appropriate amount of phosphates, whether it is through slurry or fertiliser, will be of huge benefit because it will mean that the run-off does not end up in the water and the farms will still get optimal growth.
We are looking at a five-year scheme, the cost of which will be £37 million, and we are working up the business case to ensure that we can move ahead with that as quickly as possible. I hope to be able to start that either later in this financial year or certainly in the next financial year.
We have the skills to do that work. We will continue to work with the Department of Finance to provide the resources. I hear people talk a lot about the environment, so I hope that they will be as good at talking about it when the Department is seeking money to protect the environment and that they will support the case that the Department makes to the Department of Finance to achieve that.