New guidance on Farming Rules for Water

CLA Land Use Policy Adviser Cameron Hughes explains Defra’s new guidance concerning Farming Rules for Water and the criteria the Environment Agency needs to consider

Last week Defra made an announcement on a range of issues, including important new guidance on Farming Rules for Water (also known as ‘The Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018’).

The Farming Rules for Water is a group of eight rules that were introduced in 2018 to tackle diffuse water pollution from agriculture in England. The rules were intended to be outcome-focused and risk-based, with farmers and land managers required to demonstrate that they had taken steps to prevent manure, fertiliser and soil from entering water courses. Compliance with the rules would be monitored by the Environment Agency (EA).

The rules came into the spotlight last summer, when the EA announced it had changed how it would be interpreting one of the eight rules (rule 1). This revised interpretation effectively prevented autumn applications of organic manures, including livestock manures and slurries in the vast majority of circumstances. This resulted in enormous uncertainty for livestock farmers and other producers and users of organic material, which is spread in the autumn following harvest.

The CLA joined a number of other industry groups to challenge the EA. This followed an impact assessment commissioned by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which highlighted the unintended consequences that were likely to arise from the revised interpretation. As a result of this challenge, the EA produced a Regulatory Position Statement (RPS), which meant that it would not have to enforce its revised interpretation of the rules until the RPS expired on 1 March 2022. This was neither a satisfactory response nor a long-term solution, so the CLA continued to lobby for change. Our asks were:

  • For the EA to return to a risk-based approach when assessing autumn applications of organic manures,
  • For Defra/EA to implement a transition period to allow businesses time to comply,
  • For Defra to introduce a package of measures to support the transition.

The lobbying resulted in the formation of a Defra-led working group, which has met frequently over the course of 2022, and looked at the data and the route forward. The result of this work was the publication of new Defra statutory guidance for the Environment Agency, which was released on on 30 March. The guidance presents a major shift away from the ban on autumn applications of manure in most circumstances, and sets out the criteria that the Environment Agency should consider when determining whether or not to take enforcement action.

There is more technical detail included in guidance, but a crucial point is that land managers should be able to demonstrate they have considered the nutrient content of the soils, the nutrient content of their fertiliser and made applications accordingly, based on the crop and soil requirements over the growing season.

Farmers and land managers should be able to provide nutrient management plans and will need to consider factors such as the Soil Phosphorus Index level. There are additional restrictions regarding the application of manures with a Readily Available Nitrogen content greater than 30%, and the decision to leave the soil bare over winter will require justification.

This new guidance will be welcomed by members who have organic material that needs to be spread in the autumn and by those who use organic material to boost soil health and reduce artificial fertiliser applications. However, the new guidance is not a green light for irresponsible applications for organic materials and poor practice. The agricultural industry is one of the major polluters of water bodies, and the CLA sees maintaining clean water as non-negotiable, as stated in our Water Strategy.

The secretary of state has reserved the right to review the statutory guidance at any time, and will do so no later than September 2025. Incidences of poor practice between now and the review will undoubtedly undermine the flexibility afforded in this statutory guidance. Therefore, it is important the industry makes every effort to comply, and demonstrates a real willingness to urgently address the issue of compromised water quality.

Key contact:

Cameron Hughes
Cameron Hughes Senior Land Use Policy Adviser, London