A long-awaited government strategy to tackle ammonia emissions would only save a fraction of Northern Ireland’s key habitats.
Just days after an environmental watchdog announced it was investigating the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) over ammonia guidance to councils for use in making planning decisions, The Detail can reveal environmental experts have serious concerns about the department’s strategy to tackle ammonia.
The strategy, which has been branded as toothless and insufficient, would only save 16 of the north’s 394 protected sites, according to departmental research.
Ammonia, a nitrogen compound which mainly comes from animal waste, can impact air and water quality, damages sensitive habitats and poses health risks to humans.
Around 97% of Northern Ireland’s ammonia emissions come from agriculture - the north’s biggest business sector.
Figures from 2022 show that 98% of Northern Ireland’s special areas of conservation (SACs) and 83.3% of special protection areas (SPAs) - the most important regional habitats - have nitrogen concentrations above the point at which ecological damage occurs.
Around 95.7% of areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs) - sites of national importance - have critical levels of nitrogen.
Ammonia can travel long distances, meaning that a single farm can be responsible for critical levels at habitats hundreds of metres away.
A strategy to tackle the north’s ammonia levels has been promised for years.
A Northern Ireland Audit Office report found that a draft ammonia strategy has been with Daera since the summer of 2020.
However, the strategy was only published earlier this year.
It aims that, by 2030, agricultural ammonia emissions will be reduced by at least 30% from 2020 levels.
The document lists a range of proposals for farmers, including a ban on spreading manure within 50 metres of a protected habitat.
The department is now looking at responses to the strategy, which closed for consultation in March.
However, the strategy found that even if ammonia emissions across the north are slashed by 25% over five to 10 years, nitrogen levels would only drop below critical levels at around two SACs and 14 ASSIs - out of Northern Ireland’s 394 protected sites.
The strategy stated that if ammonia emissions are specifically cut around designated sites, better results can be achieved.
However, the document did not quantify how many more sites would be saved under targeted measures.
Environmentalists and health campaigners have said the strategy does not go far enough.
Air pollution expert Dr Ulrike Dragosits, from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said the strategy will not save key habitats.
“From the purely scientific perspective of protecting the habitats, it’s not enough,” she said.
“It just doesn’t meet the thresholds that need to be met in order to keep those valuable habitats safe for the future.”
James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, said he was concerned the strategy has no teeth.
“All the measures apart from one are voluntary,” he said.
“So there’s virtually no requirement on the (agrifood) industry to comply, which means we’re in a place where we’re talking about little more than a vague wish list.”
Up to 800 people die in Northern Ireland each year as a result of air pollution, according to the British Heart Foundation.
Joseph Carter, from the Asthma and Lung UK charity, said there was a “lack of ambition” in the strategy.
“We recognise the impacts not just for people’s lungs - which is our priority - but for the broader environment as well, which is where the more visible and direct effects of this pollution are noticeable,” he said.
“It (ammonia) can do serious damage to the soils, to landscapes and to other animals as well.
He added: “So we’d like the strategy to go further, we’d like the department to be bolder.”
Northern Ireland accounts for more than 12% of the UK’s ammonia emissions, despite only having 6% of the land area and 3% of the population.
The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) - the environmental watchdog for Northern Ireland and England - said in response to the consultation that it was concerned by a lack of detail in Daera’s plans.
The strategy includes details on interim targets for reducing ammonia emissions by 2030. However, the OEP said it was “not at all clear” how Daera’s long-term 2050 target on reducing emissions would be met.
The OEP called on the department to publish “the full evidence base and underlying assumptions used in the development of the draft ammonia strategy”.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) said that without financial support for farmers “many of the proposals (in the strategy) are unacceptable as they stand”.
UFU deputy president, William Irvine, said: “Farmers recognise the need to reduce ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland and the fact that this is a huge challenge.
“The publication of the draft ammonia strategy is a step in the right direction, but we have deep concerns about the practical and financial impact if these measures are imposed.
“Every farmer will be affected, but we are particularly concerned about smaller farms and those farming close to designated sites.”
The OEP announced earlier this month that it had launched a probe into Daera - the environmental watchdog’s first investigation in Northern Ireland.
Chief Executive Natalie Prosser, told The Detail that the probe was launched because the draft ammonia strategy had not included updated guidance for assessing the impact on air quality.
“If the ammonia strategy had given us assurance that this was going to be addressed in a timely way, then maybe we wouldn’t have launched the investigation,” she said.
“But that hasn’t happened, so now we’re moving forward.”
If the OEP finds against the department it could be subject to legal action.
A spokesman for Daera said it is still considering responses to the consultation on the draft strategy.
“A long-term implementation plan, which will also address the issue of any necessary financial support, will be developed following the analysis of responses received during the consultation process, to inform a reworked draft Ammonia Strategy for an incoming Minister and new Executive to consider,” he said.
When asked why the department had not published the draft strategy earlier, the Daera spokesman said that the department needed time to develop a strategy alongside “a comprehensive research programme”, including looking at new technologies.
“It was important that the appropriate time was taken to develop policy options to optimise the knowledge base from both the research programme and emergent technologies,” he said.
“As well as time for the former Minister to give these due consideration within an evolving policy framework, with the provision of clarification where required, before issuing the consultation on the draft Ammonia Strategy.”