Expert view- The new farming rules for water are relevant to all farmers in England – Dave Freeman, Agricultural Industries Confederation

Published 18 May 18

Water StoryIntroduced on the 2 April 2018 with the objective of reducing diffuse water pollution, the Farming Rules for Water are a culmination of Defra’s discussions with industry and stakeholders which started in 2015. Defra has stated that most farms will already be carrying out these rules as part of general good practice. Many align with the existing code of good agricultural practice for Soil, Air and Water, NVZ regulations and cross compliance. However, farmers, particularly in the livestock sector, should check that they are following all the rules.


The rules are to be implemented through a new advice-led approach, where the Environment Agency will work with farmers to understand the benefits of meeting the requirements before enforcement action is taken. These rules mark a shift in regulatory culture and trial a less prescriptive approach to compliance.  That said, some of the new rules already fall under cross compliance or Nitrogen Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) requirements. Where this is the case you may not receive the advice-led approach but could still receive an instant penalty for not complying.  


Defra will be reviewing how the rules are received and adopted, with a view to more performance-led regulatory approach in future.


 What are the rules about:

There are eight new rules, with five covering nutrient management and three covering soil management.


These rules apply to all land which is actively managed, be that cultivated or land receiving inputs. They apply to grassland if any nutrients have been applied in the last three years. This change means many grassland farmers will be required to use nutrient management plans and undertake soil testing where they are not already doing so.


Nutrient management planning is needed:

These will not be new for farms who are in a NVZ, but all application of organic manures and manufactured fertilisers must now be planned. This is intended to ensure that crop nutrient needs are met and over application is avoided, reducing the risk of manures and fertilisers reaching water.  Please note that applications to grassland are also included in this requirement. 


Expervt View 22Soil testing needs to be done every five years: 

Nutrient management plans must take into account the results of routine soil testing, which must be undertaken at least every five years for all land that receives nutrients. A lot of grazing land isn’t tested regularly so this will be a focus for some farms. Soils must be tested for pH, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium levels. The rules also require that an assessment of the nitrogen requirement is undertaken in the planning of nitrogen applications. This can be done by assessing the soil nitrogen supply (SNS), which is described in section 3 of the Nutrient Management Guide (RB209).

The use of soil test results to make nutrient management plans and calculate lime and nutrient requirements is intended to support efficient nutrient use and aims to  support more productive, high-quality crops/forage and pasture production.  In many cases this could improve profitability and potentially reduce costs.


Organic manures storage

The rules introduce some new requirements particularly focused on reducing the risk of organic manures getting into water, under the rules they must not be stored on land:

  • within 10 metres of inland freshwaters (including ditches) or coastal waters
  • where there is significant risk of runoff entering inland freshwaters or coastal waters or within 50 metres of a spring, well or borehole

Fertilisers or manure must not be applied:

  • if the soil is waterlogged, flooded, or snow covered
  • if the soil has been frozen for more than 12 hours in the previous 24 hours
  • if there is a significant risk of causing environmental pollution from soil erosion and run-off


Organic manures must not be applied within 10 metres of any inland freshwaters or coastal waters (including ditches) or within 50 metres of a spring, well or borehole. If precision equipment is used, application can be made within six metres of inland freshwaters or coastal waters.

Manufactured fertiliser must not be applied within two metres of inland freshwaters or coastal waters.


Beware of poaching:

It is important to take all reasonable precautions to prevent significant soil erosion and run-off, for example from poaching by livestock, tramlines or stubbles.


Land managers must ensure that poaching is prevented within five metres of inland freshwaters or coastal waters and that it does not extend for greater than 20 meters in length and 2 meters wide.  Ways to prevent poaching include moving livestock regularly, erecting fencing adjacent to water and overwintering livestock on well-drained, level fields


Livestock Feeders:

The rules require that livestock feeders can’t be positioned within 10 metres of any inland freshwaters or coastal waters or where there is a significant risk of run-off.


Expert View 2 (1)Review of the rules after three years:

The rules will be reviewed in 2021 to establish how effective this new approach to regulation has been. Improvements in water quality will be monitored by Defra, with additional monitoring of the uptake of the rules expected to be undertaken before the 2021 review.

Although these rules have been developed with the wider agricultural industry, they still present challenges, particularly for the grassland sector. There are many resources available to help farmers meet the requirements and make best use of the nutrient management planning and soil testing requirements.


Guidance can be accessed from:

AHDB - RB209:

Tried & Tested:

Campaign for the Farmed Environment:


In addition, your advisers can support you in understanding how to plan nutrient applications and how to access soil testing services or point you to further specialist advice from FACTS-Qualified Advisers. Animal Feed Advisers on the Feed Adviser Register (FAR) may also be able to help you to about the whole farm system and how to better balance nutrient use and reduce overall surplus.  Farmers should make sure they are familiar with the rules in detail, more information can be found on the Defra website.