Special Environmental Sites and Schemes

3. Nitrate Sensitive Areas (NSA)

A NSA was an area where nitrate concentrations in drinking water sources exceeded or was at risk of exceeding the limit of 50 mg/l set by the 1980 EC Drinking Water Directive. Voluntary agricultural measures were introduced by DEFRA as MAFF as a means of reducing the levels of nitrate with payments being made to farmers who complied. The scheme was started as a pilot in 1990 in ten areas, later implemented within 32 areas, with the aims of both reducing nitrate levels in areas where concentrations were high and providing information about the most effective agricultural management approaches for bringing about reductions. 

The Scheme was closed to further new entrants in 1998, although existing agreements continued for their full term. All the NSAs fell within the areas designated as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) in 1996 under the EC Nitrate Directive (91/676/EEC).  

The scheme had two levels. The Basic Scheme included measures designed to reduce nitrate leaching within broadly existing agricultural practices and the Premium Scheme that required more significant changes.  Agreements were for five years, registration for the Basic Scheme based upon all agricultural land within the NSA being entered with no minimum area for arable land entered into the Premium Scheme.

Basic Scheme

The measures associated with the Basic Scheme were:-

  • limits on the levels of organic and inorganic fertiliser at or below economic optimum and constraints on timing of applications;
  • requirement for crop or cover crop to avoid bare land in the autumn;limit on grassland ploughing to include only leys in arable rotation;
  • retention of hedgerows and woodland;
  • a specific requirement for permanently housed pig and poultry units is the production of a manure management plan.

Premium Scheme

There were four options:-

1. conversion of arable land to grassland, unfertilised and ungrazed;
2. conversion of arable land to grassland, unfertilised with grazing;
3. conversion of arable land to grassland with limited fertiliser and optional grazing;
4. conversion of arable land to grassland with woodland.

Some areas of NSA grassland were successful in achieving a wider range of environmental benefits. Measures within NVZ's are considered to be good agricultural practice thus are uncompensated so as NSA agreements end, the last five year agreements finished in 2003, farmers are encouraged to consider other options open to them for retaining such areas.  This may be through for example, applying for funding under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme or entering eligible land directly into set-aside under the Arable Area Payments Scheme.

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