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Thousands of kilometres of new fencing required on heavily stocked farms


On January 1st next, every farmer stocked at greater than 170kgs organic Nitrogen per hectare (NPH) is going to have to fence off all drains, streams and rivers on their farms. Teagasc advisor Joe Kelleher gives more information on what is required.

Water quality in Ireland has not being moving in the right direction over the past number of years and we are continuously being told from Europe that if we don’t reverse the trends in water quality, our Nitrates derogation could be in jeopardy. These new rules are being introduced as part of a suite of measures to try halt the decline in water quality, and allow Irish farmers retain our Nitrates derogation.

From January 1st 2021, every farmer stocked at greater than 170kgs organic Nitrogen per hectare (NPH) needs to fence off all drains, streams and rivers on their farms. All water troughs will have to be moved back 20m from watercourses and cattle will only be allowed cross through the stream in exceptional circumstances.

The fencing of watercourses are part of a suite of new rules that are being introduced as part the stricter Nitrates Action Programme and from January 1st 2021 they will become law and will affect over 12,000 Irish farmers. This cohort of farmers also account for one third of the cattle on Irish farms. One of the newer aspects of these rules is that farmers who traditionally exported slurry to come in under the 170 kgs NPH limit will now also be obliged to adhere to these new rules.

A farmers stocking rate in 2020 will be used to determine who has to follow these new rules, so decreasing stock or leasing more land next year won’t be enough to get any of the 12,000 plus farmers who will now have to fence every open drain on their farm.

The rule requires farmers to erect a fence, 1.5metres from the top of the bank, alongside every watercourse on the farm. The definition of a watercourse for the purpose of these regulations includes any waterbody or any drain that eventually leads to a waterbody. This includes any “dry” open drains on the farm that may or may not convey water. The one caveat in the rules is that where an existing fence is within 1.5m of the drain, the farmer will not be required to move this fence.

The requirement not to have a water trough within 20metres of an open drain is also being introduced on January 1st. This is to prevent direct runoff to watercourses. The 20m distance is required regardless of there being a roadway or any other barrier between the trough and the waters. For farmers on heavier soils who may have drains on all 4 sides of a field, this could prove awkward to achieve. There may be exemptions where you have very narrow fields. The requirement in this instance is to move the trough away as far as possible from the waterbody.

The crossing of cattle through watercourses on these 12,000 or so farms is also being prohibited except in exceptional circumstances. This will require farmers to install culverts or bridges in these situations. Farmers should be aware that it is a requirement to contact Inland Fisheries Ireland before doing any works regarding culverts or bridges. It is also an offence under the Fisheries Acts to disturb the bed or gravel of streams from mid-September to mid-May where fish may spawn or have already spawned.

The only situations  where cattle will be allowed to continue crossing watercourses will be where the crossing is to an isolated parcel, for very wide streams and where the crossing is very in-frequent. For dairy farmers crossing a river every 21 days to a parcel of land may not be viewed as infrequent.

Drinking points are also being banned on these heavily stocked farms and alternative sources of drinking water will have to be provided.

When all these rules are put together with the new rules regarding farm roadways there are unlikely to be many farmers who won’t have to make changes of some level on their farms. While these rules have been touted for some time now, it is only in the past few weeks that the finer details have emerged.

Because of the short timeframe being given to this cohort of farmers to rectify any deficiencies on their farms we are not aware of how strict department of agriculture officials  will be when conducting on farm inspections in early part of next year. There are murmurings that a warning system may be adopted but nothing appears to be finalised yet.

There is going to be considerable levels of effort and investment required on many farms to adhere to these rules, but if it helps in improving our water quality, then perhaps if may be worth the effort.