Livestock farmers’ concerns over Defra’s new water protection rules

Cattle on the marshes in the Broads.  Picture: James Bass

Cattle on the marshes in the Broads. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2016

New regulations designed to help farmers prevent pollution of rivers and watercourses have generated particular concerns among East Anglia’s livestock community.

Rob Wise, NFU regional environment adviserRob Wise, NFU regional environment adviser

Defra’s new Farming Rules for Water, which came into force in April, set out measures for farmers to manage their soils, fertiliser and manure in order to prevent runoff, erosion and leaching.

They include requirements for where organic manures and manufactured fertilisers must be stored, and the conditions when they can be applied within specified distances of waterways.

Farming leaders said most of these formalised water protection rules already existed in different areas of legislation, and were considered best practice in the industry. But Rob Wise, environment adviser for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) in East Anglia, said there were concerns relating to the interpretations of two rules.

Rule One includes a requirement for all cultivated agricultural land at risk of pollution to be soil tested every five years for phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, pH and nitrogen levels – which he said was a major extra administrative burden for farmers owning grazing land.

And in Rule Six, the “reasonable precautions to prevent significant soil erosion and runoff” include measures to prevent poaching, or trampling, by livestock of the ground at the water’s edge – which could mean grassland fields need to be fenced off from water.

“We have had a couple of isolated cases of EA (Environment Agency) people talking to farmers saying if you did not fence this grass field off from the river at the bottom we will take enforcement action,” said Mr Wise. “I don’t think anyone wants to see all rivers and watercourses fenced off from grassland. It will certainly change the way the Broads looks, and there are concerns for other landscapes as well.

“A potentially more significant one is around planning the use of manure and fertilisers. Rule One says there should be soil tests every five years. The definition they are applying to cultivated land is any land that has had manures or fertilisers applied to it.

“That is a sledgehammer to crack a nut if you are going to require farmers to soil test all their grassland every five years, as well as their arable land. How much of the problems from manure and fertiliser are coming from grassland? Very little. So that is something we are talking to Defra to get clarification on.

“On the whole we consider the farming rules for water as best practice and should not be much of a concern for farmers as they should be doing it anyway. But there are a couple of areas that are somewhat open to interpretation.”


The Environment Agency is responsible for enforcing rules to protect water by requiring farmers to take reasonable precautions to prevent it from becoming polluted.

A spokesman for the EA said: “The rules are designed to prevent diffuse water pollution from agriculture with the land manager responsible for determining the degree of pollution risk and taking reasonable precautions to prevent it.

“In Rule 1, the requirement to inspect fields where nutrient application is planned applies to cultivated agricultural land such as land that has been ploughed, sown and harvested at least once in the previous year or that has had fertiliser or manure applied in the last three years.

“In Rule 6, fencing to prevent erosion along watercourses caused by trampling or poaching applies where the land manager determines there is a risk of this occurring. In many cases landforms and other factors prevent livestock from causing erosion.”

• For more information on the new Farming Rules for Water, see the Defra website.

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