There are many common misconceptions about farming in NI, particularly in areas related to the environment.

Outlined are five issues where the latest official data from DAERA indicates a different picture to what many people may think.

Firstly, the number of water pollution incidents caused by farms is at its lowest level on record. Farm pollution incidents have been on a general trend downwards since 2014, when 444 cases occurred.

In 2022, there were 194 cases where a farm was the source of a pollution incident. It is the lowest figure in the available dataset, which runs back to 2005.

Secondly, current fertiliser use is less than half of what it was in the mid-1990s. Last year, 250,400t of fertiliser were delivered to NI farms, which compares to a peak of 529,000t in 1995.

The figure for 2022 is the third lowest annual total in the available dataset, which runs back to 1979. Last year’s total is down 20% on 2021 levels, mainly due to record-high fertiliser prices.

Livestock and nature

A third point is livestock numbers are nowhere near record levels. Total cattle numbers are currently 5% lower than the record high seen in 1998.

The NI sheep flock peaked in the same year and is now 30% smaller. Total pig numbers were at a record high back in 1965 and are currently 41% lower. Poultry numbers peaked in 2018, but have fallen by 21% since then.

Fourthly, DAERA statistics suggest farmers are more than willing to deliver extra actions to support nature when schemes are flexible and provide a financial return.

In 2010, almost half of all NI farmland (470,000 hectares) was managed under agri environment schemes. Last year, the figure stood at just 64,000ha for the current Environmental Farming Scheme.

Finally, there is a growing appetite to incorporate trees into the farmed landscape.

There were 451 hectares of new woodland created last year and 540 hectares the year before that.

Over the previous decade, annual tree planting averaged just 226 hectares.