Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has stated he will seek “flexibility” on the timeframe around which the European Commission will decide whether the maximum stocking rate for nitrates derogations farmers must fall.

As it stands, the decision on whether Ireland must drop maximum stocking rates from 250kg organic N/ha to 220kg N/ha will be made over the summer.

However, Minister McConalogue told the Seanad on Wednesday that he will seek to push this back to get the time needed to show improvements in water quality which resulted from tightening up the rules derogation farmers have had to follow in recent years.

The minister’s case comes as he warned of “at least some of the country” could see a derogation stocking rate cut from 250kg N/ha to 220kg N later this year after the mid-term review of the Nitrates Action Plan (NAP).

There is “particular concern” among medium- and small-sized farmers on the impact of any derogation cut, he said in response to a question posed by his party colleague Senator Timmy Dooley.

“We had to agree to the mid-term review, and to the fact that 250kg N/ha could be reduced to 220kg N/ha in certain catchments if water quality was not improving,” Minister McConalogue stated.

“I am preparing a case to engage further with the European Commission to see if we can get further flexibility around time to show improvements in water quality. “There is no guarantee there will be any change in that. As it stands, the situation is that it could drop to 220/kg in certain catchments if water trends do not improve.”

Changing trends

The minister suggested that the backdrop to this summer’s negotiations will be different to those last year and the year before when the current derogation was agreed.

Asking for extra time could allow for the most recent data to better allow the argument to be made for keeping the 250kg N/ha stocking rate allowance.

Minister McConalogue cited the 300,000 head added to the dairy herd from 2017 to 2021 and an “average additional 30,000t of nitrogen” being used nationally per year as examples of the metrics examined when the current derogation was negotiated.

“Water quality also declined in certain areas, particularly in the south and southeast.”

Fewer derogations all-round

The mid-term review was agreed to so Ireland could be granted a derogation.

“Depending on the outcome of that review, it is possible under the derogation we negotiated, and to which we had to agree, that at least some of the country will have to move to the lower maximum stocking limit of 220kg organic N/ha,” the minister said.

The only other EU member states to have a derogation are the Netherlands and Denmark.

The Netherlands’ derogation is being phased out and will not be granted past 2025, Denmark’s will last until 2024 when another must be sought.

Flanders in Belgium had a derogation up until the end of last year but has not applied for an extension.

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