As the nitrates controversy enters its third week, there is a bit more clarity on what is likely to happen next spring.
Speaking at the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee on Friday, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue confirmed that a split approach will be taken on the derogation next year.
This means that some parts of the country will have a new maximum stocking rate of 220kg N/ha while other parts will remain at 250kg N/ha.
The parts with new lower limits are generally referred to as the red area in the EPA map which was published at the end of June.
The Minister said there may be some small tweaking to this map and that will be carried out over the next few weeks and then communicated to farmers.
There is as of yet no clarity as to how such a system of split limits will be enforced. For example, if a farmer has two parcels of land, one in a catchment at 220kg N/ha and the other in a catchment at 250kg N/ha what will be their maximum stocking rate?
The other big revelation from this committee hearing is that the EPA map is set to be updated with new data later this year and that this could change the areas under red.
This refers to some of the anomalies with the EPA map whereby catchments in Cork and Wexford were not marked in red, even though it is acknowledged that water quality in the catchments is under pressure from nitrates.
It is understood that the reason why some of these regions are not red is that the data required by the EPA to make an assessment based on the European Commission request is not yet available.
The Minister said that when all the data is reviewed at the end of this year, if some regions need to move to 220kg N/ha, then that will happen in 2025, not 2024.
Essentially, this gives farmers in these regions an extra year to adjust to the new system, while farmers in the red area, which is not yet finalised have just a few months to adjust before the restriction kicks in next January.
Finally, the announcement that the Taoiseach is to invite the EU Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevicius to Ireland is not likely to change anything in the short term.
This invite is seen as a strategy to retain the derogation at 220kg N/ha at the next review at the end of 2025 as opposed to reinstating the derogation at 250kg N/ha everywhere this year.
It should also be borne in mind that this Commission term ends in autumn 2024, so in all likelihood Sinkevicius will have moved on by the time the crunch talks take place.
Let’s hope that if the Commissioner accepts the invite, he will bring the key, permanent decision makers in DG Envi with him to Ireland.