Farmers operating under the nitrates derogation are rightly furious at the approach Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue and Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien have taken in their handling of the review of the nitrates action plan (NAP), the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) has said.

IFA president Tim Cullinan said that they are showing "scant regard" for these farmers.

“The ministers have signed into law the possibility of a reduction in organic nitrogen from 250kg/ha to 220kg/ha without any consultation with [the] IFA.

"All the indications coming from the Department is that this is being taken as a done deal," he said.

Revised plan

The revised NAP, which came into force at the start of this year, placed significant additional restrictions on farmers, including increased soiled water storage requirements, shallow cultivation rules for tillage and the banding of excretion rates for dairy cows.

Time is needed to see the results of these actions

These measures, Cullinan said, along with others added in the last number of years, will all help protect water quality.

However, he argued that time is needed to see the results of these actions.

“[The] IFA has been calling for programmes such as ASSAP to be expanded to give farmers guidance on how best to protect water quality on their farms.

"This, along with measures such as further funding of slurry storage through TAMS and accelerated capital allowances, can result in real improvements in water quality," Cullinan said.

IFA environment chair Paul O’Brien said the slow release of information, along with the changing of the goalposts mid-season on shallow cultivation, points to a complete lack of understanding of the consequences of any kneejerk change in nitrates regulations.

“Not only is the Department giving in and changing the goalposts mid-season, we now have the farcical situation where they plan on giving derogation farmers three months’ notice that they may have to drop their stocking rates by over 10%.

"On the one hand, the Minister is telling us that any changes farmers undertake will be voluntary. On the other hand, he is tightening the screw to reduce stocking rates. It’s totally disingenuous,” he said.

Cullinan added: "We need Minister McConalogue and his officials to clarify what their position is on nitrates.

"Are they going to fight to ensure we retain our derogation at current levels that helps us maximise our grass-based efficiencies or are they going to use nitrates as a back door to putting the brakes on some of our most productive livestock and dairy farmers in the country.”