NFU CYMRU has urged Welsh Government to consider a ‘workable alternative’ to reducing nitrates from agriculture to prevent further extension of Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) in Wales.
The Union has written to the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths AM, to reiterate earlier commitments to provide the resources required to support the development of such a solution as an alternative to NVZ proposals that could see the percentage of NVZs in Wales rise from 2.4% to 8% – or even a leap to an all territory approach covering the whole of Wales.
The Cabinet Secretary is expected to make an announcement on the NVZ designations before the end of 2017.
The new option put forward by NFU Cymru has been designed by farmers and builds on an off-set scheme that has been operating successfully by a group of First Milk dairy farmers in the Cleddau Catchment in Pembrokeshire. The approach requires farmers to select mitigating measures appropriate to their system. The scheme is recorded, audited by Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and meets the strict requirements of the Environmental Permitting and Habitats Regulations – on average each participating farm is saving a tonne of nutrient annually.
This model has significant potential to be developed and could deliver measurable reductions in nitrates, well above those modelled for the NVZ Action Programme, as well as broader environmental benefits.
Speaking ahead of the Welsh Dairy Show in Carmarthen, NFU Cymru President Stephen James said: “We are clear that any new designations will have a significant impact upon the businesses of farmers and, severely hit the rural economy of these areas. The costs associated with implementation vastly outweigh the benefits to water quality. Farmers do, however, recognise their role in improving water quality and have developed a workable solution that has the potential to deliver far more than can be achieved through the NVZ Action Programme.
“The measures suggested with this approach address diffuse pollution issues and also provide habitat improvement. Developed in partnership, we believe they are likely to engender the confidence and ‘buy-in’ of the farming community – our own survey work shows significant willing from Welsh farmers to address the issue of nitrate pollution and improve water quality.
“This proposal is a workable alternative to the options currently on the table and delivers farmer-led solutions that bring environmental benefits – something that all parties share a vested interest in achieving; also aligning with Wales’ new legislative framework which presents opportunities and the flexibility to move forward and make progress on water quality issues on a different basis than previously.
“An alternative approach, rather than an unwieldly EU directive, will enable us to develop, grow and realise NFU Cymru’s vision of a productive, progressive and profitable industry that will deliver jobs, growth and investment for Wales and we have extended an offer to the Cabinet Secretary to join us on a visit to farms in West Wales to see the benefits of this approach for herself.”
WHAT IS AN NVZ?
An NVZ designation places a series of restrictions on farmers’ ability to use certain types of fertiliser on their land at prescribed times of the year. The aim is to reduce the effect that run off from agricultural land has on the environment.
The effects of nitrate pollution on the aquatic environment can be significant. High nitrate concentrations can cause a deterioration in water quality and disturb the ecosystems of rivers and other watercourses. Over enrichment of water can lead to a depletion of oxygen levels leading to a loss of marine life and causes increased toxic and non-toxic algal blooms, which make the situation worse by reducing water transparency. Nitrate pollution can reduce not only the diversity of plant life but also damage fish and shellfish stocks, as the algae consume the available oxygen suffocating other life.
In the worst case scenario, anaerobic (oxygen-starved) conditions cause toxic bacteria to thrive and can create ‘dead zones’.
In order to tackle the threat posed by nitrate pollution, in 1991 the European Union adopted rules governing nitrate pollution and sought to regulate the extent of nitrate pollution entering the environment.
WG APPROACH LACKS EVIDENCE
FUW Senior Policy Officer Dr Hazel Wright, who has been representing the Union in the review process, said: ‘‘The FUW has been involved in the NVZ review and has made successful representations on several designations, which resulted in their removal from the discrete areas option of the consultation.
“However, the number of proposed new designations remain a concern and the FUW continues to reiterate the operational and financial impacts those designations would have upon farms that reside within an NVZ area. Given such costs, there must be full justification for any proposed increases in designation.”
Two options outlined in the consultation include the continuation of the discrete approach to designation or the designation of the whole of Wales as a NVZ. A continuation of the discrete approach would see an increase in the amount of NVZ designations in Wales rise from 2.4% to 8%. This would mean significant changes to NVZ designation in counties such as Pembrokeshire, Carmarthen and Anglesey.
“The FUW remains resolutely against the option to apply the action programme throughout the whole of Wales as this would require all landowners to comply with the NVZ action programme measures.
“There is a distinct lack of evidence for a whole territory approach and the difficulties and costs associated with regulatory compliance for farms whose land does not drain into nitrate polluted waters, makes this option both unwarranted and unreasonably excessive,” added Dr Wright.
Conservation groups don’t like ‘unpalatable truth’
THE FARMERS’ Union of Wales has warned that conservation bodies have their heads in the sand over the devastating impact badgers have had on hedgehog numbers, and are doing conservation a great disservice by scapegoating farmers.
The State of British Hedgehogs 2018 report released on February 7 by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species estimates that hedgehog numbers have halved since the beginning of the century, and places the lion’s share of the blame on intensive farming.
However, world leading hedgehog expert Dr Pat Morris, author of The New Hedgehog Book, wrote in his 2006 book “The implications [of high badger population densities] for hedgehog survival are serious…ignoring the issue or pretending that badgers exist only by harmless drinking of rainwater doesn’t help at all.”
A survey of badger numbers between November 2011 and March 2013 found that badger numbers in England and Wales have increased by between 70% and 105% in the past 25 years.
“Dr Morris is named in the State of British Hedgehogs 2018 report as the instigator of the first survey of hedgehogs based on animals killed on roads, but no mention is made of his concerns regarding high badger numbers having such a devastating impact on hedgehogs.
The issue is dismissed and swept under the carpet, despite overwhelming scientific evidence of the impact of badger predation, while farmers are effectively singled out as being to blame,” said FUW President Glyn Roberts.
A 2014 peer reviewed study of hedgehog numbers in ten 100km2 areas where badgers were culled in England found that “…counts of hedgehogs more than doubled over a 5-year period from the start of badger culling, whereas hedgehog counts did not change where there was no badger culling.”
Mr Roberts said: “Of course there are areas where intensive farming has had a detrimental impact on hedgehog numbers, but it is simply wrong to paint the whole of the UK as being like that – the fall in hedgehog numbers has in fact coincided with farmers planting more hedges.”
Mr Roberts added that this view was backed up by the RSPB, who said that losses of managed hedges appear to have halted in the mid-1990s, while the net length of hedges in the UK was stable or increasing.
The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species report said it was planning to engage with the farming community to ‘stem the alarming decline of our country hedgehogs’.
The likelihood is that there is a range of events causing impacts on the hedgehog population. Certain types of pesticides affect the hedgehog’s food chain, while larger and more open fields with less substantial hedgerows might also contribute to hedgehog predation and decline. The increased use of road vehicles is a certain factor, as is urban and suburban spread. Unusually, domestic pets are not a major hazard for hedgehog populations.
In rural Wales, however, the dramatic explosion in badger populations cannot be ignored as a significant factor in driving the decline of hedgehog numbers.
In the early-2000s, an investigation was carried out by the Small Mammal Specialist Group into patterns in hedgehog and badger populations across hundreds of square kilometres of rural southwest England and the midlands. One important finding was that hedgehogs appeared to be absent from large swathes of pastoral grasslands where they are thought to have once been commonplace. The group surveyed hedgehogs in a number of areas which were geographically and ecologically similar, but with different levels of badger culling.
Hedgehog numbers in suburban areas doubled during the five years of badger culling, and remained static in areas without culling. This demonstrated for the first time that badger predation is a strong limiting factor for hedgehog populations in these particular habitats.
Until the mid to late 20th century, heavy persecution of badgers kept them at low numbers. The Badgers Act of 1973 introduced protections, enhanced by the 1992 Protection of Badgers Act. Consequently surveys published in January 2014 revealed that in the 25 years since the first survey in 1985-88, the number of badger social groups in England has doubled to around 71,600.
In pasture-dominated and mixed agricultural landscapes, and in some suburban habitats, badgers thrive with have plentiful denning opportunities and abundant food resources. The largest increases in the density of badger social groups have occurred in the landscapes that dominate southern, western and eastern England. These are also the areas where hedgehog declines are likely to be most severe.
While nobody is suggesting that badgers be culled to improve biodiversity and give hedgehogs a chance of re-establishing themselves, the refusal to acknowledge evidence which they find inconvenient suggests that the weight that can be given to the Hedgehog Survey is questionable.
Glyn Roberts suggested that those ignoring the evidence were simply unprepared to face the truth about natural predation: “By sweeping under the carpet the unpalatable truth that badgers eat hedgehogs, and that the doubling in badger numbers has had a catastrophic impact on hedgehog numbers, and scapegoating farmers by highlighting outdated ideas about hedge removal, conservation bodies are doing a huge disservice to hedgehogs and conservation.
“In fact, they are doing exactly what Dr Pat Morris warned of in his Hedgehog Book – burying their heads in the sand by pretending increased badger numbers are not a major threat to hedgehog survival.”
Charities benefit from breakfast fundraising
THE EQUIVALENT of a year’s farm income (£13,000) has been raised by the Farmers’ Union of Wales, for its charitable causes – Alzheimer’s Society Cymru and The Farming Community Network.
Speaking about the success of the FUW’s farmhouse breakfast week at the end of January, Union President Glyn Roberts said: “Our staff, members and wonderful volunteers have done an incredible job in raising what is the equivalent of a year’s farm income for many farms in Wales for our chosen charities.
“Farming communities are close-knit communities and this shows what can be achieved when we all come together, with a common goal. Through these events, where we all sat around the kitchen table to talk and share our thoughts about #FarmingMatters, we’ve strengthened ongoing and permanent relationships and established new ones.
“The money we have raised in our rural communities will go towards helping others in our communities – we must never forget that our communities are the engine room of people powered change and also that this strength of community has the power to hold governments to account.”
FMD plans tested
GOVERNMENT departments around the UK are set to carry out simulation exercises to test contingency plans for dealing with any future outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
Exercise Blackthorn involved the Animal and Plant Health Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Scottish Government, Welsh Government and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland are set to test their current state of readiness over the next few months.
The EU Directive 2003/85/EC requires Member States to exercise their contingency plans either:
- twice within a five year period; or
- during “the five year period after the outbreak of a major epizootic disease has been effectively controlled and eradicated.”
The first simulation exercise took place on Thursday, February 8, with a further table-top exercise on March 8 followed by a real-time exercise on April 25 and 26 April.
Exercise Blackthorn will end on June 7 with a final table-top exercise. UK chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens said regular testing of contingency plans was an important part of making sure the authorities can respond to outbreaks.
“Exercises like this provide an opportunity for teams across government and industry to engage and to learn lessons in a controlled and safe environment,” he said.
“The risk of foot-and-mouth disease arriving in the UK is low but ever present. Government monitors disease outbreaks and incidence around the world assessing risk for the UK and taking action to mitigate risk where possible.”
After being free of FMD since 1968, Great Britain suffered a return of the disease in 2001. The entire outbreak lasted for 221 days and had a devastating impact on the farming industry, rural community and the wider economy across the UK. The UK was officially declared disease free on 22 January 2002.
An exercise evaluation report will be published in the autumn.
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