Farming Rules for Water: Read our latest guidance

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Latest update - 14 September 2021

The first meeting of the Environment Agency working group to discuss the Farming Rules for Water took place on Thursday 9 September and was attended by the NFU and a range of farming organisations. 

After a difficult summer, it was a challenging meeting with a frank and robust exchange of views, but we welcomed the opportunity for continued engagement.

We will continue to press the need for this group to allow for a debate around a more nuanced interpretation of Rule 1 by the Environment Agency, as well as a discussion around a longer term solution to nutrient management. The group must continue to identify outcomes that work for farmers and the environment.

Read on for our latest guidance.  

Watch a recording of our NFU Live event where representatives from the Environment Agency answered members' questions

Updated statement from Environment Agency on RPS

Following NFU lobbying, on 25 August Defra updated the RPS content on its website to include a new statement from the Environment Agency on how farmers should approach spreading manures this autumn.

The statement includes the following hierarchy of actions:

  1. If you can follow Rule 1 of Farming Rules for Water, then you do not need to use the RPS – carry on with your planned activities.
  2. If you can follow the conditions in the RPS – tell the Environment Agency you are using the RPS as described in the ‘contact’ section, and carry on with your activities.
  3. If you cannot comply with the conditions in the RPS, email ZW5xdWlyaWVzQGVudmlyb25tZW50LWFnZW5jeS5nb3YudWs= or call 03708 506 506 (general enquiries). The Environment Agency will assess the risk of your activities. For this autumn, it will allow activities that will not cause significant risks (significant risk may result from repeated applications to the same field or spreading close to protected sites, such as Natura 2000 sites). You must not start your activities until the Environment Agency confirms you can do so

By allowing activities that will not cause ‘significant risks’, the third stage of the hierarchy appears to offer more flexibility than before for farmers who cannot comply with Rule 1 of Farming Rules for Water or the RPS that accompanies it.

However, we still recommend members take independent advice before proceeding down this route.

Further clarity still needed

While this is a welcome development, several key areas of uncertainty remain. These include: what compliance with Rule 1 means in practice in terms of what soil and crop need is, when it can be satisfied, and how pollution risk is judged.

We are still hearing that many members are still struggling to make sense of the RPS. If the Environment Agency cannot retract the RPS as the NFU has requested, it should certainly be looking to make the rules far clearer for farmers.

The Environment Agency statement also refers to the organisation’s enforcement and sanctions policy and describes how it acts proportionately when applying the law. The statement says this ‘normally means working with farmers, setting out what they need to do to be compliant, rather than moving straight to sanctions. The Environment Agency will take regulatory action where appropriate, for example where activities result in a significant pollution incident'.

The guidance in our flowchart below largely reflects the new Environment Agency hierarchy, but we will update it shortly to include the further information in the third stage.

If you are also in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) then you should also follow the rules that apply to NVZs on Gov.uk.

Your NFU Farming Rules for Water RPS Flowchart

We have produced a flowchart to help answer members' questions about the RPS and whether organic manures can be applied this autumn.

Download the flowchart: (you will need to log in)

How to log in: Use your membership number or the email address associated with your membership. If you've forgotten your password, use this form to reset it or contact NFU CallFirst on 0370 845 8458.​

How to use the RPS

To notify the Environment Agency, farmers must send an email to ZW5xdWlyaWVzQGVudmlyb25tZW50LWFnZW5jeS5nb3YudWs= with ‘RPS 252’ in the subject line and the following in the body:

  • Name of the person and company using the RPS, including their email address and phone number
  • Address where you will use the material relating to the RPS
  • Type of material that will be spread.

Farmers wishing to rely on the RPS should take independent advice to ensure that they understand any potential implications of doing so (particularly as there is no guarantee that the RPS will be available in future years), and ensure that they have complied with the requirements attached to the RPS.

Rule 1 of Farming Rules for Water

The Environment Agency had previously indicated autumn applications of manure are likely to breach Rule 1 of the Farming Rules for Water unless the AHDB Nutrient Management Guide (RB209) says the receiving crop has an immediate nitrogen requirement, such as is the case with oilseed rape.

This was an interpretation of Rule 1 of the Farming Rules for Water, saying manure and fertiliser applications to agricultural land must be planned so as to not ‘exceed the needs of the soil and crop on that land’ or ‘give rise to a significant risk of agricultural diffuse pollution’.

Farmers will need to consider their position carefully and may wish to take independent legal and/or professional advice regarding their circumstances to ascertain whether they are compliant with Farming Rules for Water.

New FACTS guidance

The 3 July 2021 also sees the publication of fresh guidance from FACTS, which the NFU and other industry bodies have helped shape, on what farmers can do to comply with Rule 1 of the Farming Rules for Water.

The guidance emphasises the role of robust and up-to-date nutrient management planning and signposts to relevant tools for doing so. It also recognises the differing level of risk associated with different manure applications and indicates where special care may be needed.

    AHDB Farming Rules for Water impact assessment

    Separately, in February 2021, the AHDB commissioned ADAS to conduct an evidence-based impact assessment of Rule 1, particularly ‘the restriction on the use of organic materials in the autumn and winter’. The assessment considered the practical and financial impact on farmers, such as having to reduce livestock numbers, build more storage and breach contracts with suppliers. It also considered impacts on the wider environment, as well as addressing evidence gaps and potential solutions.

    The NFU sat on the steering group for this work and the final report has now been published.

    For general enquiries on the RPS, email the Environment Agency at ZW5xdWlyaWVzQGVudmlyb25tZW50LWFnZW5jeS5nb3YudWs=. Alternatively, contact your local office, or call the national helpline on 03708 506 506.


    NFU recent lobbying

    We continue to engage with the government on the Environment Agency RPS on spreading organic manures this autumn and winter.

    We are pressing for the:

    • Retraction of the RPS together with the suspension of the enforcement of Rule 1 of the Farming Rules for Water until further clarity is received.
    • Terms of reference and a clear timetable to be shared ahead of the establishment of a forthcoming Environment Agency-led working group, set up to address the challenges around meeting Rule 1.
    • Environment Agency to issue more practical guidance to answer the many questions posed by members.

    As well as writing to George Eustice and many one-on-one conversations with key contacts, we also secured a meeting with the farming minister, Victoria Prentis where we had constructive talks and raised concerns on behalf of all the farming sectors. The minister has agreed to set up a working group with the EA to examine the recent changes.

    Through all of this engagement, we are consistently asking for the RPS to be withdrawn immediately and, following a full consultation with industry, brought back in a far more simple and practical form next spring. Until then, we are also asking for enforcement of Rule 1 to be suspended, otherwise farmers will be back to square one.

    The document says farmers can apply organic manure to agricultural land that may exceed the needs of the soil or crop on that land in certain situations, but must not cause a risk of pollution. Farmers intending to use the RPS have to notify the Environment Agency of their intention to do so, and ensure that they meet the conditions attached to the RPS.

    The Environment Agency says it will not assess these notifications or send out authorisations to use the RPS.

      We need a longer-term solution

      The RPS is only in place until 1 March 2022, unless the Environment Agency chooses to extend it, and includes a number of significant caveats for farmers:

      • Farmers must have employed a contingency plan that shows using the RPS is the only option they have.
      • It only applies when using manures on land with a low risk of leaching and run-off, which does not include sandy or shallow soils.
      • It only applies when manures are used at an application rate that allows no more than 5kg/ha of nitrate-nitrogen to be leached.

      The NFU will continue to work with the Environment Agency and industry partners to find a longer-term solution to the issue that works for both the environment and farmers. As well as a more nuanced interpretation of the regulations from the Environment Agency, this solution might involve a multi-year transition period that allows farmers to take advantage of an improved nutrient management offer from Defra in terms of advice, tools, and incentives.

      Vice President Stuart Roberts_69971

      NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts said:

      “This announcement is a missed opportunity to provide much needed clarity for farmers who have significant concerns on how Rule 1 of the farming rules for water regulations is being interpreted.

      “I am deeply disappointed with the content of the statement by the Environment Agency, which sets an idealistic and impractical barrier in many farming situations. We’ve made multiple approaches over the past two years urging Defra and the Environment Agency to set achievable objectives to make best use of organic manures, slurries and biowastes – this seems to have been ignored, and I am still to hear from Defra ministers despite having written twice in recent months.

      "To find ourselves in this situation so close to autumn shows a complete lack of appreciation of the bigger picture; these materials improve soil health and replace manmade fertilisers while use at this time of year reduces ammonia emissions compared to applications in spring. This legislation must be applied in a way that recognises the wider benefits of using organic manures sustainably.

      “Farmers have made great strides over recent decades in reducing key agricultural emissions. We’ve seen a major reduction in the amount of manures and fertiliser applied to farmland and held in the soil, which means far less nutrients reaching our rivers than in the past. Much of this progress has been made by farmers taking voluntary action through industry-led initiatives to drive improvements that benefit the water environment, as well as on farm productivity.

      "We can do more with investment through incentives, such as the Slurry Investment Scheme and the Environmental Land Management scheme, working alongside initiatives such as Catchment Sensitive Farming.

      "The NFU will continue discussions with the Environment Agency, government and industry stakeholders - but a longer-term and more sustainable solution is urgently needed that benefits both farmers and the environment."

      Working for farmers on Rule 1 since 2019

      The Farming Rules for Water – or The Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018 – were introduced to help protect water quality from farming activities.

      One part of the regulations, commonly known as 'Rule 1', dictates that land managers must plan each application of manure or fertiliser to agricultural land so that it does not ‘exceed the needs of the soil and crop on that land’ or ‘give rise to a significant risk of agricultural diffuse pollution’.

      The NFU has been engaging with the Environment Agency and others on Rule 1 since 2019, when a member was challenged for plans to spread digestate ahead of sowing a winter cereal. The regulator said the supply of nutrients from the digestate would likely exceed soil and crop need and, therefore, the member would be in breach of Rule 1 if the application went ahead.

      In response, we sought clarity from the Environment Agency on its approach and received a document in return, which said the Farming Rules for Water did not impose a ban on any manure or fertiliser. It also said that compliance is assessed on a farm-by-farm and field-by-field basis.

      We also organised a series of meetings between members, NFU staff, the Environment Agency, AHDB and Rothamsted Research in the hope of reaching a consensus. Ultimately, these meetings resulted in further guidance from Tried & Tested and from the Environment Agency around nutrient management planning in the context of Rule 1.

      Challenging Rule 1 extension enforcement

      In 2020, we saw the Environment Agency extend its enforcement of Rule 1 beyond the application of digestate to include other, generally less risky, materials, such as dirty water, slurry and biosolids. As this hardened stance became apparent, NFU staff picked up meetings with the regulator around Rule 1. We robustly challenged its approach, pointing to the wider environmental benefits of manure applications in the autumn as well as the practical and financial impacts on farmers if applications are delayed.

      We have also been in close contact with the water industry, which of course shares our concern with the Environment Agency interpretation when it comes to the application of biosolids.

      Farming Rules for Water review

      In late 2020, Defra launched a post-implementation review of the Farming Rules for Water, which was a requirement of the regulations themselves. The NFU was approached to feed into the review, alongside a range of other stakeholders, and we submitted a written response in January 2021.

      As well as detailing our opposition to the Environment Agency interpretation of Rule 1, we also stated the need to raise awareness of the regulations among farmers and to provide better guidance and tools around nutrient-management planning. The key points in our response were reiterated during a Defra stakeholder workshop in February 2021, which was also attended by a member of the NFU Environment Forum, as well as at a one-on-one meeting with the deputy director for water at Defra.

      We are still waiting on a report on this review from Defra.

      NFU escalates issue

      In April 2021, NFU officeholders decided to escalate the issue by writing a letter to Defra Secretary of State, George Eustice, copying in Environment Agency chair, Emma Howard-Boyd. Once again, we set out our opposition to the Environment Agency interpretation of Rule 1 and raised the likely impacts on farmers and the environment.

      As well as calling on the regulator to rethink its interpretation, we asked Defra to consider how its wider offer to farmers around nutrient management could be improved to help them comply with the Farming Rules for Water. As with the review, we are still waiting on a response from Defra, but officeholders have since raised the issue with George Eustice in person.

      More recently, we also wrote to Defra minister Rebecca Pow raising our concerns again and offering to discuss the issue on farm, but have so far received no response to this letter either.

      Since the RPS was issued on 3 August, and it became clear that many farmers would struggle to either understand it or meet the conditions, the NFU has taken every opportunity to raise our concerns at the highest levels of Defra and the Environment Agency.

      See more under NFU recent lobbying.

      Write to your MP to make them aware of this issue

      In addition to the extensive lobbying the NFU is doing, we're encouraging members to write to their MP about the impact these changes will have on them.

      Use our prepared template letter to let your MP know this issue needs to be urgently addressed.

      Remember to include your full name and postal address. Also, letters to MPs are more effective if you can take a few minutes to personalise them and bring to life the effect these changes might have on your farm and your ability to produce food.