On page 6 we set out clearly the expert view on the multitude of issues impacting Lough Neagh.

As farmers we have to accept our share of responsibility, but at the same time, it is unfair to pin this all on agriculture – raw sewage and run-off from septic tanks is also a significant factor.

Looking ahead, we have a world leading soil nutrient health scheme which will identify the nutrient status of our fields. It is vital that once results are made available, farmers utilise the advice coming from CAFRE and target nutrients at the fields that need them most.

We also have to do better when it comes to managing slurry, particularly at the shoulders of the spreading season and avoid applications when heavy rain is forecast.

That said, compliance with the rules among farmers is very high – a fact not mentioned in the commentary from mainstream media and environmentalists in recent weeks.

Instead, some of debate has been misinformed. In particular, the references to the Stormont-backed Going for Growth report from 2013, which seemingly has led to an explosion of livestock manure in NI.

Yet our core cattle and sheep populations have hardly moved over many decades. Where there has been some recent growth is in pigs, although numbers are still lower than in the 1980s and 1990s, and in poultry where Moy Park has driven expansion in broiler production. But most of the resultant litter is taken off farms. The main point of the Going for Growth report was to become more efficient and grow added value, not numbers per se.

Legislation

The other issue being highlighted is a decision in October 2022 by former Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots to change legislation, meaning those with repeated negligent (rather than deliberate) breaches of rules would have penalties capped at 15%. This is seen as evidence the Minister went easy on polluters.

This legislative change was little other than a public relations exercise as it actually impacted a tiny number of farmers. Instead, during his tenure as minister, the number of farm inspections and penalties went up, not down.

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Huge jump in penalties for NI farmers

Threefold increase in NI farm penalties