Audit office reports on NI water quality

A report by NI Auditor General Dorinnia Carville has recommended that DAERA develops and publicises a water quality improvement strategy for NI and considers ways to enhance its inspection and regulation regime.

The report, released on Monday, highlights that European targets to improve water quality in NI by 2027 will not be met, with the main issue being excess levels of phosphorus getting into water bodies.

Since 2015 there has been no improvement in the ecological status of rivers (31% at good status), while in the case of lakes, only 14% were classed as good in 2021, down from 24% in 2015. There are twice as many lakes and rivers in the Republic of Ireland classed as good (or better) than in NI.

While the report recognises that pollution incidents have fallen in recent years, it points out that one in four incidents in 2022 are linked to agriculture and one in eight to NI Water. The report also highlights that even though a 1% inspection regime of farms by the NI Environment Agency (NIEA) is in line with regulatory requirements, it acts as a minimal deterrent in practice.

Limit on green actions in England

Farmers in England will only be allowed to take up to 25% of their land out of agricultural production as part of an environmental scheme.

The new rule for the Sustainable Farming Incentive applies to measures such as flower rich grass margins and pollen flower mixes.

Speaking to MPs on Tuesday, Environment Secretary Steve Barlcay said the change was made to “protect food security”.

“There had been concerns whether we had got the balance right between the funding for the environment and the funding for food production,” he said.

“There was risk of landowners removing tenant farmers because they were opting to go into environmental schemes as opposed to food production,” Barclay added.

UFU backing for Welsh farmers

The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has said it supports farmers in Wales who are pressing for changes to a controversial new farming scheme.

“We stand in support of our Welsh colleagues as they look to develop alternative approaches,” UFU president David Brown said after a UK farm union summit in Fermanagh.

Current proposals for the new Sustainable Farming Scheme in Wales include the need for 10% of each farm to be in trees by 2030, plus a further 10% managed for wildlife habitat.

The plan has been met with an angry response from farmers and has led to protests across Wales in recent weeks.

Welsh farmer representatives are hoping that the appointment of both a new First Minister and Rural Affairs Secretary earlier this month will allow scope for the proposals to be revised.

A public consultation on the proposed scheme, which closed to responses on 7 March, could also pave the way for changes if it is clear Welsh farmers are not on side.

“Across the UK there needs to be a balanced approach at a policy level, not just to look at the environmental side of agriculture, but at the economic and social consequences of agricultural production,” David Brown said.