Farming and environmental matters

Much general environmental legislation has a direct impact on farming.  This ranges from water pollution legislation and fisheries protection legislation to general legislation protecting and designating certain parts of the environment for protection.

Fisheries legislation creates offences in relation to water pollution.  Prosecutions may be made by An Garda Siochana or Inland Fisheries Ireland who replaced the Regional Fisheries Boards.  There is a narrower range of defences available in Fisheries Act prosecutions.

The nitrates directive and its implementation in Ireland are of key significance. It is designed to protect water quality against nitrate pollution, principally from agriculture.

Water Pollution Licensing

Water pollution legislation makes it an offence to allow pollutants to enter water. The legislation applies to most bodies of water, including rivers, canals, lakes, ponds, and streams.  It applies to areas adjoining rivers and pollutants close to bodies of water so that they may ultimately enter or percolate to the water body by percolation or rising water levels.

There is a licensing system permitting the discharge of pollutants into water.  The licenses are not generally relevant to agricultural activities. Each local authority makes a water quality management plan.

It is an offence to cause or permit any polluting matter to enter the water. Polluting matter is anything which would be poisonous or noxious or injurious to fish, their food or spawning grounds or make water harmful or detrimental to public health or to domestic, commercial, industrial, agricultural or recreational use.

This will cover slurry, silage or effluent recurrent or one-off.  However, it may also substitute a broader range of materials that make pollutants in context.

It is a defence that the person prosecuted took all reasonable care to prevent the entry of pollutant matters into waters by providing, maintaining and operating facilities and practices suitable for prevention.

Prosecutions may be taken by local authorities, in some cases,  the Environmental Protection Agency or by fishery protection bodies. In addition to prosecution, the legislation provides that a person may recover damages in respect of loss or injury arising where effluent sewage or other pollutant matters enters waters and causes injury, loss or damage to a person or a property.

Compensation may be recovered from the occupier of the premises from which the effluent originated unless it was caused by an “act of god” or an act of omission over which the occupier had no control and which he could not reasonably have foreseen or guarded against.  Compensation may also be recovered from any person whose act or omission occasioned the entry into the waters in a manner which would contravene the legislation.

Special Designations

A number of the key special environmental protection areas are of direct relevance in the context of agriculture.  Most designations derive from European Union directives binding on the state.  Other designations derive from planning law.

The effect of the designation is to restrict what may be done with the lands concerned in addition to that which applies under general planning and environmental law.  Consent may be required from an entity other than the local authority.

Special protection areas are designed for the protection of wild birds.    Generally, special protection areas in the estuaries or coastal areas. The State must ensure that no pollution or deterioration occurs in these areas.

Special areas of conservation require steps to protect natural habitat fauna and flora.  Special areas of conservation have been designated by the State.  The areas are designated as a proposed SAC subject to approval by the EU Commission.  On completion of approval they are designated as such.

Special areas of conservation are subject to the natural habitats regulations.  These restrict development and work significantly.  Consent may be required in addition to that required by planning permmission.  In addition, the fact of the designation or proposed designation will be highly relevant in respect of any planning application.

National Heritage Areas are also a product of European Union requirements.  They are designated based on scientific evidence by virtue of special scientific interest of one or more species, habitats, geological, geomorphological landforms and other criteria.  The designation as a National heritage area will impact upon the consideration of a planning application in that area.

A special area amenity order applies to areas of outstanding natural beauty or special recreational value and  has regard to benefits of nature conservation.  An area may be declared an area of special amenity by the planning authority.  It may be reviewed from time to time.  Almost everything within a special area amenity order would require planning permission even that which would otherwise be exempt.

A landscape conservation area may be designated by a planning authority.  Development within it which would otherwise be exempt requires planning permission.

Nitrates Directive

The Nitrates Directive has special relevance to farming.  Eutrophication occurs where water is enriched with plant nutrients such as phosphorous or nitrogen.  This leads to reduction in dissolved oxygen and decreases the capacity of the water to sustain life.  The Nitrates Directive is designed to control water pollution caused by the use of artificial fertilisers containing nitrates.

Each State is obliged to designate nitrate vulnerable zones in accordance with certain criteria including whether the nitrate content of water exceeds or may exceed certain value.  In nitrate vulnerable zones states must establish national action programs.  This must include measures prohibiting the use of certain fertilisers in certain periods and respecting livestock when you apply to the land not more than certain quantities.

The implementation of legislation in Ireland has been troubled and a number of earlier attempts to implement legislation were found to be inadequate by the European Court of Justice following challenges by the European Commission.  The legislation has been contentious and earlier versions faced significant opposition.

The regulations implementing the Nitrates Directive place obligations on occupiers of agricultural holdings.  These require compliance with regulations as well as adherence to advice and guidelines issued by the department of agriculture or the environmental protection agency.  The Department of Agriculture has prepared guidelines available.

Farmyard Management

There are obligation which are designed to reduce the risk of water pollution.  They require adaptation of best practice in farmyard management.  Reasonable steps must be taken to minimise the amount of soiled water produced on the holding.

Rain water from roofs and unsoiled paved areas and water flowing from higher ground is to be diverted to a clean water outfall and prevented from becoming soiled.  Soiled water is water contaminated by contact with livestock faeces urine  fertilisers or washings from milking parlours, vegetables or water used in washing farm equipment.

An organic fertilisers, soiled water effluent manure pits silage pits was prior to application to land or treatment be collected and held at a manner that prevents one off seepage directly or indirectly into ground water or surface water.  Storage facilities must be maintained, designed and managed to prevent the same.  Storage facilities must be constructed in accordance with Departmental specification.

The capacity of storage facilities for manure, organic fertilisers, soiled waters and effluent — manure and silage pits must be adequate to provide storage for as long as necessary and to avoid water pollution.

Storage requirements are prescribed for different type of manures.  The country is divided into zones and the storage requirements depend on the zone concern.

Use of Fertilisers

There are fertiliser application limits for nitrogen and phosphorus.  The application must not exceed that required for crops on the holding.  There are limits for various types of fertilisers.  They refer to restrictions within particular distances of bodies of water.

There are requirements in relation to the manner of application of fertilisers and soiled water.  There are periods during which application is prohibited.

There are limits on the amount of organic nitrogen that may be applied on a holding.  These are measured in quantity of nitrogen per hectare.  This may limit the quantity of livestock per hectare as the nitrogen output is directly linked to the quantity of livestock.

This measure initially caused controversy and was modified in response. The modification prescribes phosphors and nitrogen fertiliser limits above 170 kilogram nitrogen per hectare related to the application of livestock manure.

The modifications were designed to ease intensive dairy, pig producers and poultry producers. The criteria are based on permitted soil phosphorus ranges for grasslands.


Regulations require keeping of records for each year.  They must be retained for four or five years.  The records must cover total area;

  • Cropping regimes for each area,
  • livestock numbers and type,
  • storage capacity,
  • estimation of annual fertiliser requirements;
  • amounts of concentrates fed.

The Department furnishes an organic nitrogen statement based on cross-compliance record.  This must be calculated and completed. Compliance with REPS records will generally fulfil the requirements of the scheme although new records may be required.

It is an offence not to comply with the regulation subject of summary conviction of a fine up to €3,000 or imprisonment of six months or both.

The regulations are enforced by the County Councils and the environmental protection agencies.  There are powers of inspection including powers to enter, conduct surveys and remove evidence if necessary. The Department  of Agriculture may act as agent.


The directive limits the  quantity of organic manure that may be spread on land in the time of spreading.  There are limits for chemical fertilisers spread and time of spreading.

The Minister for the Environment in consultation with the Minister for Agriculture  published a four years action programme for the protection of water from pollution  from agriculture.

The capacity of storage facilities for livestock manure and effluents must be adequate to provide for storage of all substances to avoid pollution. The storage capacity of 26 weeks applies to pig manures except where there are less than 100 pigs and there is sufficient land to spread the manure produce.

  • Storage capacity of at least 26 weeks applies to poultry manures where there is less than 2,000 poultry.
  • Storage capacity of six weeks applies to sheep and goat manure.
  • Storage capacity of 10 days applies to soiled water.

There are different storage periods for cattle depending on the zone within in the country ranging from 16 to 22 weeks.  There are measured in volume service storage per week per animal. Reduced storage capacities may apply in certain circumstances.

Stocking Rate Factors

There is a stocking rate limit of 170 kilograms per hectare equivalent to 0.8 cows per acre.  This is increased where a percentage of the farm is used in tillage provided the overall stocking rate is below 170 kilograms of organic nitrogen per hectare.  There are  possibilities of individual derogations for a period. A derogation of 250 kilograms is available on individual application as of 2009.

Farms with a stocking rate below 170 kilogram per hectare may spread chemical nitrogen subject to certain limit.

There are restrictions on the application of phosphorous depend on the stock rate, the zone and the soil index.

The derogation may be allowed subject to certain conditions.  A manual application must be made.  The holding must be at least 80 percent grass.  It is only available for grazing livestock.  There must be a fertiliser plan and fertiliser accounts must be kept and submitted to the department.


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Draft Articles; The articles on this website are in draft form and are subject to further review for typographical errors and, in some cases, updating and correction. It is intended to include references to the sources of materials and acknowledgements in the final version. The content of articles with [EU] in the title and some of the articles in the section on Agriculture are a reproduction of or are based on European or Irish public sector information.

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