The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has warned that plans by Agriculture Minister Andrew Muir to beef up the enforcement team within the NI Environment Agency (NIEA) risks doing “an awful lot of harm” to relations between DAERA and farmers.

Speaking to the Irish Farmers Journal, UFU deputy president John McLenaghan said there was still a real need to educate and inform when it comes to best practice around nutrient management.

“We are only halfway through the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme and the associated training that comes with that. The learning takes time to bed in.

“Shifting more towards the stick rather than the carrot will be detrimental to the behavioural change that is necessary going forward. That is the big concern,” said McLenaghan.

Earlier in June, Minister Muir confirmed that he has managed to find around £2m within the DAERA budget to fund an additional 28 posts to strengthen regulation and enforcement within NIEA.

The additional officials are to work within Lough Neagh and its catchment.

McLenaghan believes there has been a significant hardening in the messaging coming from Minister Muir since the general election was called and that some in DAERA are keen to use what happened in Lough Neagh in 2023 to justify much more draconian measures.

A review of the Nutrients Action Programme (which sets out rules around slurry and fertiliser spreading) is currently underway, with initial proposals suggesting a significant tightening of approach.

With more inspectors on the ground enforcing even stricter rules, it will inevitably bring more non-compliances, damaging the public perception of the industry.

“The more you look, the more you find. Yet we see a lot of genuine good intent out there from farmers. They don’t like the fact Lough Neagh has elevated pollutant levels built up over 100 years,” said McLenaghan.

He is also concerned Minister Muir might look to amend a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), signed between the UFU and NIEA in 2017, after the minister indicated he is seeking “radical changes” to an agreement around enforcement with NI Water.

That MoU with the UFU sets out key commitments around training and guidance, as well as communication and advice. It also includes a commitment from NIEA to give seven days of notice ahead of a routine cross-compliance inspection.

“At the time, it was the NIEA who approached us. You work alongside the industry you are trying to enforce. In every other industry that is recognised as a positive approach,” said McLenaghan.

He also confirmed that the UFU is still waiting to hear if it is successful in a funding application for water quality officers to visit farms and offer advice.

“We are frustrated this has not progressed as quickly as we would like. Knocking on doors, sitting around the kitchen table in a one-one-one. That is where you get behavioural change. If you go straight to enforcement, you get peoples backs up,” he said.