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The government has promised clarity on farming rules for water which have restricted the spreading of autumn manure.

• Confusion over anti-pollution rules

• Minister promises clearer guidance

• Resolution needed before too long

The government has promised clarity on farming rules for water which have restricted the spreading of autumn manure.

It follows widespread confusion following a much-criticised statement issued last summer by the  Environment Agency on how farmers should approach spreading organic slurries and manures.

The statement said the agency could not sanction the routine application of organic manures in the autumn without any immediate need from the crop to which it was applied – effectively banning the spreading of what many consider a key nutrient.

This was despite the long-held view that applying autumn manures in preparation for spring uptake is good agricultural practice, improves soils health and complies with the necessary regulations – so long as there is no pollution risk.

Agency chief executive James Bevan added to the confusion when he insisted: “There is nothing within our interpretation of the farming rules for water that stops autumn application of appropriate organic fertilisers to improve soil organic matter.

Green composts

“Improving organic matter in soil can be achieved by spreading and incorporating organic fertilisers that add organic matter but do not contain nutrients that are not needed: green composts are a good example.”

The situation eventually triggered a letter to farm minister Victoria Prentis from Neil Parish, chairman of the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committe, seeking clarity over the increasingly acrimonious issue.

Ms Prentis has now confirmed that greater clarity will be given shortly on what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable farming practice. This guidance would be urgently provided so farmers can plan for the year ahead, she said.

‘Mixed messages’

Mr Parish said he looked forward to receiving the government’s advice. Farmers had been rightly concerned about the mixed messages they had received about how and when they could spread organic manure, he added.

“The government now needs to deliver on this promise and promptly produce guidance which meets the needs of farmers and the environment and gives farmers the certainty they need to be able to incorporate good organic matter into the soil.”   

Tenant Farmers Association chief executive George Dunn said: “In essence, the agency was seeking to criminalise farmers for applying organic fertiliser in the autumn despite it being both good practice and fitting with wider government policy on soil health.”

He added: “Whatever can be agreed must be communicated clearly and quickly to the farming industry to avoid a further hiatus this coming autumn.”