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Approval of new poultry farms ‘brings waste threat to protected NI nature sites’


Over 70% of new poultry farms have been developed within 4.6 miles of protected nature sites since 2015

Over 70% of new poultry farms have been developed within 4.6 miles of protected nature sites since 2015

Over 70% of new poultry farms have been developed within 4.6 miles of protected nature sites since 2015

A high proportion of new poultry farms approved in Northern Ireland are near protected nature sites, despite the vast majority of these already being severely ecologically depleted.

Since 2015, in the councils where the vast majority of new poultry farms are concentrated, more than 70% of such farms have been developed within 7.5km (4.6 miles) of protected nature sites.

Most of the poultry units approved here since 2015 range from 16,000 to 32,000 birds each, in a region which already has large numbers of intensive poultry megafarms.

Poultry farms produce significant amounts of litter in Northern Ireland each year.

Such waste releases a harmful emission called ammonia.

The vast majority of Northern Ireland’s 250 protected nature sites are already experiencing ammonia concentrations above “critical levels”.

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Despite this, planning applications show that most proposed farms continue to be granted approval.

Policy responsibility for ammonia and its impact on the environment lies with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), which is also a statutory consultee to the planning system.

The Department for Infrastructure, which has regional oversight of planning decisions, acknowledges that DAERA’s approach to assessing ammonia levels requires remedy and “does not reflect up-to-date scientific data and recent case law”.

Friends of the Earth’s director in Northern Ireland, James Orr, called Stormont’s approach “disastrous for the environment” and he referenced two DAERA strategies — the department’s ‘Going for Growth’ strategy and its biodiversity strategy.

Going For Growth was introduced in 2012 and the number of intensive poultry factories more than doubled from 2011 to 2017.

Mr Orr also said Going for Growth was promoted at the expense of DAERA’s environmental responsibilities, adding: “Virtually none of the targets in the biodiversity strategy were met.”

He also said the NI Environmental Agency (NIEA), which is part of DAERA, was “politically captured”.

“It’s the job of the NIEA to intervene, but it can’t do it because you have policy people within DAERA trying to push a ‘growth agenda’ which gets prioritised over protecting the environment.”

However, DAERA told The Detail the impact of planning applications which are close to protected nature sites are properly assessed, and that it provides guidance to councils on such issues.

Councils have maintained they follow all the relevant laws with regards to approving agricultural planning applications.

Mr Orr referenced how, during recent years in Northern Ireland, expansionist agricultural policies have won out over environmental concerns — even when they are raised by state agencies.

In July 2019, Shared Environmental Services (SES) — which advises councils on environmental issues related to planning — issued new guidance on ammonia thresholds, following an international court case.

However, in November 2019, the Ulster Farmers’ Union threatened legal action, arguing the changes would make it “virtually impossible” for the farming sector.

Following an intervention from Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, SES declined to apply the new threshold until the department introduced fresh guidance, which over two years later, has still not been introduced.

Mr Poots is “currently considering the latest revision” of the guidance, a spokesperson said.

The challenges posed by chicken litter has been a well-established problem here.

Exporting animal waste to the Republic is an approved method used with increasing frequency since 2015.

In some councils, 100% of all new poultry developments are exporting their litter across the border.

Yesterday, an investigation by The Detail, The Guardian and Noteworthy revealed that there have been dozens of cases in which official documents, relating to the export of poultry litter to the south, were allegedly either completely “falsified” or “altered” without knowledge or consent.

These letters — which were purportedly issued on behalf of Teagasc, an agri-food body in the Republic — have been used to verify that farmers in the south can take animal waste from Northern Ireland, and to satisfy local planning authorities that the ammonia from the waste won’t have an impact north of the border.

However, there are concerns about whether or not councils should be relying on these letters at all in order to approve farmers’ applications.

“Teagasc hasn’t got the experience, authority or capability to advise on ammonia thresholds and other environmental assessments”, said Mr Orr.

DAERA said it had sought legal advice on the reliance of Teagasc letters in June 2021.

The department said: “The advice affirmed that the purpose of the Teagasc letter is to confirm the recipient is a bona fide farmer in the Republic of Ireland with the capability to utilise the manure from the development at the location stated.

“The advice also affirmed that planning authorities (councils) are responsible for determining the need for transboundary consultation and undertaking habitats regulation assessments”, — a process that determines whether development plans could negatively impact nature sites.

However, analysis of planning files from Northern Ireland shows that such transboundary assessments have rarely been carried out by authorities on either side of the border.

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