Clear as mud or muck: new regulations on muck-spreading

Farmers claim the new regulations on muck-spreading are “clear as mud” according to the farmers’ weekly podcast. DEFRA has recently issued new guidance which some say, with relief, allows a bit of muck-spreading in the autumn. Others say it is merely confusing.

This story should be followed by Kent readers interested in water quality, particularly in the Stour catchment area. The debate is whether declining water quality, as evidenced by the eutrophication at Stodmarsh, is caused mainly by farming or by the increased output of sewage from urban developments.

Some developments, such as in Wye, have been put on hold to avoid further worsening in the Stour catchment area.

What do the regulations say?

Rule RP252 stipulates farming rules for water quality. It bans spreading muck (organic manure) on bare fields if the crop then planted cannot absorb it and more than 5 kg of nitrate or phosphate per hectare leaches into groundwater. The number of inspectors has been increased from fifty to seventy eight. Their job is to do field inspections to check if manure is leaching into groundwater. So what are the options for animal farmers, such as dairy or pig keepers, who inevitably produce heaps of poo?

They are:

  1. Store at the place of production
  2. Store at the place of use (an arable farm waiting to muck-spread)
  3. Send to an anaerobic digester, such as a sewage works
  4. Store off-site elsewhere
  5. Spread on land at low risk of leaching

It is obvious that any of options 1-4 would cost extra money, so farmers pleaded with the government to be allowed to do option 5. This is the concession that was announced last week, but details show that the concession is only for farmers in very specific locations where the soil type, the gradient and the distance from ground water means the risk of polluting the water catchment area is low. Furthermore, the government warns that these rules apply only to this year, and by March 2022 new regulations will be in place.

Soil Improvement and Organic Farming

The farmers who complain about the stricter rules say that they are trying to do the right thing by using organic inputs (muck) rather than chemical fertilizers. It used to be a virtuous circle of the surplus from animal farming being used to improve the soil.

But now this ban on autumn muck-spreading upsets this. They will in fact be allowed to muck-spread in the spring, as usual, for nitrate-hungry crops like maize. Winter crops do not take up as much nitrates which is why the regulations are imposed now. It is all to be controlled by farm inspectors who know the science and how to calculate the measurements for each farm location.

Organic farming fetches premium prices, but it comes with environmental costs. The worst story on this is the Wye catchment area where the numerous free-range chicken farms are polluting the water courses with their slurry.

Stodmarsh Mitigation Strategy

The news from Kent is that the developers (in Wye for example) will be allowed to proceed if they buy credits to achieve nutrient neutrality. This does not mean the houses they build will generate less poo.

It means the developers will contribute to the creation of more wetlands or wild areas that take land out of agricultural use that would otherwise add to slurry run-offs. This is a scheme pioneered in the Solent where several areas have been rewilded using the funds from developers.

The no-farm solution

This looks like solving a farming problem by not farming. Some farmers might be happy to take the money, give up their land and retire. At the end of this process, the county will consist of bloated suburban developments with a few rewilded farms and wetlands in between to mitigate pollution – no pastures of lambs, no waving corn.

Food will either be imported, or grown in warehouse labs. That is an exaggeration for the moment, but a lot is happening in the regulation of farming and of water. We need to be better informed about the choices that are being made.