Sector-specific issues

Arable

Almost one fifth of agricultural land in Scotland is designated as arable, the majority of this being situated in the east of Scotland, where the land tends to be most fertile and where the climate is more suitable.

Barley is the most common arable crop grown in Scotland, although other crops such as wheat, oats, oilseed rape and potatoes are also commonplace. Most cereal crops, such as wheat and barley, are planted in either spring or autumn.
Issues which affect arable farming include:

  • Nitrate leaching
  • Pesticides
  • Soil erosion
  • Waste

Nitrate leaching

Nitrate is an essential nutrient required for plant growth. As well as occurring naturally in soil, nitrates are supplied in chemical fertilisers, livestock manures and slurries and often organic materials spread on land. The loss of nitrogen compounds, such as nitrates, can cause pollution where they are allowed to enter watercourses or groundwater [internal 1].

Although high levels of nitrates are of concern with respect to drinking water supplies, the main environmental concerns about nitrates relate to eutrophication of the water environment.

When crops are growing, nitrogen, in the form of ammonium and nitrate, is readily absorbed from the soil.

However, once plant growth begins to decline, any remaining nitrates in the soil, or those made available through the application of fertiliser or slurry, are vulnerable to loss. This is especially true if any such nitrates are below the root zone and where soils are light or sandy. 

Nitrate loss can occur in other soil types due to their high solubility in water and they are particularly prone to loss through leaching – this is where nitrates dissolve in water as it passes through soil, before entering field drains or watercourses.
The quantity of nitrates lost in this way will depend on the amount of nitrates in the soil and the movement of water through the soil. This will be further influenced by the soil's texture and structure. Sandy soils, for example, which are low in organic matter and have a poor water holding capacity, tend to suffer more from nitrate leaching than well structured, clay soils.

To reduce the quantity of nitrates lost through leaching it is important that applications of fertiliser are closely matched to crop requirements. The quantity of nitrogen already available in the soil through deposition from grazing animals, crop residues and from any applications of manures or slurry, needs to be taken into account.

The timing of applications is also important. Nitrates are very soluble in water and any nitrates present in the soil, in excess of crop requirements, will be prone to loss. Crop requirements will vary significantly through the year and will be influenced by crop type, growth stage and weather conditions.

By carefully targeting applications of nitrogen to crop requirements, fertilisers will be used to maximum efficiency and the risk of environment pollution will be greatly reduced. The 4 Point Paln (4PP) and PEPFAA Code  offer guidance on this.

Farmers with land in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) are required to comply with Action Programme Regulations, enforced by the Scottish Government. Separate guidance is available from the Scottish Government website on cross compliance.
Our role in the EC Nitrates Directive is restricted to monitoring surface and groundwater and reporting the data to the Scottish Government. We also assess whether agricultural nitrates are causing, or have the potential to cause, eutrophication.   

Pesticides

Arable pesticides include herbicides, fungicides and insecticides and are commonly used in agriculture to control a wide range of weeds, diseases and pests. Herbicides are usually applied at the start of the growing season to kill weeds and prevent them competing with the emerging crop for light, moisture and nutrients. Insecticides and fungicides tend to be used as required throughout the crop production cycle.

Most pesticides are made available in a concentrate form. This is usually diluted with water on-farm to create a solution which is then sprayed onto the crop as a fine spray, often from a tractor-mounted or a trailed sprayer, but also from self-propelled sprayers.

Although pesticides are targeted at relatively few specific organisms, their use can have negative impacts on the wider environment, affecting non-target organisms and aquatic ecosystems.

Ground and surface waters are vulnerable to pollution by pesticides and can raise concerns for public health where supplies are used for drinking water.

Pesticide pollution can arise from both steading and field sources. Even small amounts of pesticide can result in a significant pollution event, for example, from drips and spills of concentrate onto concrete at the farm. Minor spills or splashes during the mixing of pesticide solution, or any drips or leaks from the sprayer, can be sufficient to cause pollution if they are washed into farm drains or watercourses.

Guidance on how to minimise the risk of pesticide pollution can be found within the PEPFAA code and the Code of practice for using plant protection products in Scotland. SEPA is represented on the UK Voluntary Initiative (VI)and Scottish Implementation Group, alongside, NFUS, Scottish Government Environment Directorate, SNH and farm assurance schemes.
Farmers are encouraged to use guidance issued under The Voluntary Initiative  on crop protection management plans, the National Register of Sprayer Operators (NRoSO) and National Sprayer testing scheme. Scottish Quality Cereals (SQC) is responsible for ensuring that standards for food safety and environmental measures are followed.

SEPA has also actively participated in the development, through UK research, of guidance and legislation on bio-beds. These systems can significantly reduce the risk of pesticide pollution arising from the handling of pesticides and pesticide sprayer wash down etc., see the voluntary initiative.

Soil erosion

Loss of agricultural soils through erosion affects productivity and impacts the water environment. Build up of silt on river beds and increased levels of sediment in the water can affect aquatic habitats and organisms. Eroded soil particles can transport pollutants such as pesticides and phosphates, which can have a negative impact for the water environment.

Certain soils are more prone to erosion than others. There are, however, measures and practices that farmers can adopt to reduce the risk. Guidance on how to minimise the risk of soil erosion can be found within the PEPFAA code and the farm soils plan.

Waste

Agricultural waste can pose significant risks to the environment and human health if not managed appropriately. The types and quantities of wastes will vary between farms. Common types of waste produced on farms will typically include materials such as packaging, tyres, oils and silage plastics etc.

Guidance on minimising waste produced on the farm and further information is available from our agricultural waste guidance.

Beef

Beef farming is a highly significant agricultural sector in Scotland, it accounts for about a quarter of the total value of agricultural gross output. 

There are over 500,000 breeding beef cows and heifers in Scotland. Beef cattle farming takes place on over 9,500 holdings. Some beef farms have their own breeding cows and produce calves each year, which may then be sold as ‘stores’ at around six to twelve months, or kept until they are ready to be slaughtered.

Other beef farms may specialise in ‘finishing’ or fattening cattle and will buy in ‘store’ cattle, or unwanted calves from dairy farms. The age at which beef cattle are considered to be finished varies, but is usually between 12-36 months, it is influenced by the type of breed, rearing methods and the animals’ diet. Typically, cattle which graze take longer to finish than those fed on concentrates or cereal based diets.

There are various breeds of beef cattle in Scotland ranging from the traditional breeds of Aberdeen-Angus, Shorthorn and Galloway to the typically larger ‘continental’ breeds of Limousin, Simmental and Charolais.

There are a number of issues relevant to beef farming, among them:

  • Poaching and soil erosion on grassland
  • Livestock slurry and farmyard manure
  • Silage effluent
  • Waste

Poaching and soil erosion on grassland

Poaching can be a problem when cattle are wintered on grassland, particularly around gateways, feeding areas and watering points. This can lead to risks of soil erosion and compaction. Poaching can occur where the land is ‘cut-up’ through cattle moving or tramping on wet soils. This removes the vegetative cover, leaving the soil open to the elements and prone to being washed away via surface water run-off.

Soil erosion can not only remove fertile top soil and clog up drains etc., but can also lead to water pollution if the sediment is washed into watercourses. Guidance is offered to farmers on how to prevent soil erosion and compaction in the 4 point plan, farm soils plan and the PEPFAA code.

Livestock slurry and farmyard manure

In order to avoid poaching and damage to grassland and to improve productivity, many farmers house their cattle over the winter months. The manure or slurry produced is collected and stored prior to spreading on land as fertiliser. Livestock manures and slurries offer a valuable source of plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Taking account of the nutrients applied to land as slurry or manure, and the levels of nutrients already available in the soil, then comparing them with the nutrient needs of the crop, can often result in significant savings on inorganic fertiliser use. Manures can also help increase the organic matter content of soils thereby improving soil structure and fertility.

While slurries can be beneficial for plant growth and soil nutrient levels, they are relatively high in terms of Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) and can pose significant water pollution risks. Pollution risks can occur at all stages of handling livestock manures and slurries including collection, storage, transportation and land application.

In order to minimise pollution risks from steadings where livestock are housed, any slurry that is produced is required to be collected and contained. Further information is available from the Control of Pollution (Silage, Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil) (Scotland) Regulations 2003(SSAFO).  

Spreading slurries to land can pose a significant pollution risk if the spreading takes place close to watercourses or when the ground is frozen or water logged. The rate and method of application to land is also very important. There tend to be fewer problems with solid farm yard manures from beef units. Guidance is available to farmers on how to reduce the risks of causing pollution from storing and handling livestock manures and slurries, and can be found in the PEPFAA code and the 4 point plan.

Silage effluent

Any forage crop that is being made into silage (for feeding cattle) will produce effluent. Silage effluent has a Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) of around 65,000 mg/l of oxygen, and is one of the most potentially polluting materials produced on farms. For example, a clamp or silo containing 500 tonnes of unwilted (not dried) silage has a similar polluting potential as the daily untreated sewage output from a city the size of Aberdeen.

The quantity of effluent depends on the moisture content of the crop being ensiled (stored in a clamp or silo):

  • Grass ensiled at a dry matter content of 10–15% will produce about 360–450 litres of effluent per tonne of grass ensiled.
  • Grass ensiled with a dry matter content of 21–25% will produce up to 90 litres of effluent per tonne.

It is therefore vital that cut grass is wilted for as long as possible, before being stored.

Waste

Agricultural waste can pose significant risks to the environment and human health if not adequately managed. The types and quantities of wastes will vary between farms. Common types of waste produced on farms will typically include materials such as packaging, tyres, oils and silage plastics etc.

Guidance on minimising waste produced on the farm and further information is available from our agricultural waste guidance.

Dairy

The main dairy farming areas are in south-west Scotland, where conditions are particularly favourable for grass growth. The number of dairy units has declined dramatically in recent times, due to years of poor economic returns. There are approximately 198,000 dairy cows on about 1,800 holdings.

Like most farming, dairy farms handle a number of materials such as fertilisers, oils, cleaning chemicals, effluents, manures and slurries, veterinary medicines etc., which each have the potential to harm the environment if not managed appropriately.

In recent years, a successful working partnership between the farming community and SEPA has resulted in raised awareness of pollution issues involving livestock farming. By providing advice and good practice publications, and through improved compliance and co-operation from farmers, there has been a marked reduction in agricultural pollution incidents.

There are a number of issues relevant to diary farming, among them:

  • Poaching and soil erosion on grassland
  • Livestock slurry and farmyard manure
  • Silage effluent
  • Waste

Poaching and soil erosion on grassland

Poaching can be a problem when cattle are wintered on grassland, particularly around gateways, feeding areas and watering points. This can lead to risks of soil erosion and compaction. Poaching can occur where the land is ‘cut-up’ through cattle moving or tramping on wet soils. This removes the vegetative cover, leaving the soil open to the elements and prone to being washed away via surface water run-off.

Soil erosion can not only remove fertile top soil and clog up drains etc., but can also lead to water pollution if the sediment is washed into watercourses. Guidance is offered to farmers on how to prevent soil erosion and compaction, in the 4 point plan , farm soils plan and the PEPFAA code.

Livestock slurry and farmyard manure

In order to avoid poaching and damage to grassland, as well as to improve productivity, many farmers house their cattle over the winter months. The manure or slurry produced is collected and stored prior to spreading to land as fertiliser. Livestock manures and slurries offer a valuable source of plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Taking account of the nutrients applied to land as slurry or manure, and the levels of nutrients already available in the soil, and comparing them with the nutrient needs of the crop, can often result in significant savings on inorganic fertiliser use. Manures can also help increase the organic matter content of soils thereby improving soil structure and fertility.

While slurries can be beneficial for plant growth and soil nutrient levels they are relatively high in terms of Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) and can pose significant water pollution risks. Pollution risks can occur at all stages of handling livestock manures and slurries including collection, storage, transportation and land application.

In order to minimise pollution risks from steadings where livestock are housed, any slurry that is produced is required to be collected and contained. Further information is available from the Control of Pollution (Silage, Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil) (Scotland) Regulations 2003(SSAFO).  

Spreading slurries to land can pose a significant pollution risk if the spreading takes place close to watercourses or when the ground is frozen or water logged. The rate and method of application to land is also very important. There tend to be fewer problems with solid farm yard manures from beef units. Guidance is available to farmers on how to reduce the risks of causing pollution from storing and handling livestock manures and slurries, and can be found in the PEPFAA codeand the 4 point plan.

Silage effluent

Any forage crop that is being made into silage (for feeding cattle) will produce effluent. Silage effluent has a Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) of around 65,000 mg/l of oxygen, and is one of the most potentially polluting materials produced on farms. For example, a clamp or silo containing 500 tonnes of unwilted (not dried) silage has a similar polluting potential as the daily untreated sewage output from a city the size of Aberdeen.

The quantity of effluent depends on the moisture content of the crop being ensiled (stored in a clamp or silo):

  • Grass ensiled at a dry matter content of 10–15% will produce about 360–450 litres of effluent per tonne of grass ensiled.
  • Grass ensiled with a dry matter content of 21–25% will produce up to 90 litres of effluent per tonne.

It is therefore vital that cut grass is wilted for as long as possible, before being stored.

Waste

Agricultural waste can pose significant risks to the environment and human health if not managed appropriately. The types and quantities of wastes will vary between farms. Common types of waste produced on farms will typically include materials such as packaging, tyres, oils and silage plastics etc.

Guidance on minimising waste produced on the farm and further information is available from our agricultural waste guidance.

Pig and poultry

Scotland's pig industry has historically been concentrated in the north and east of Scotland, mainly because of its close links with cereal production and relatively dry climate. Scottish herds total around 450,000 pigs.  

There are a large variety of animal husbandry systems used by the pig industry, including free range and intensive methods, producing high quality meat and breeding stock for both domestic and overseas markets.

The poultry industry in Scotland contributes aboout 3.5% of the agricultural output. Scotland’s poultry flock comprises of approximately 14 million birds housed in a large number of units which are widely dispersed throughout the country. Scotland's egg industry accounts for approximately 1.4% of Scotland's agricultural output.

There are a number of issues relevant to pig and poultry farming, among them:

  • Poaching and soil erosion on grassland
  • Livestock slurry and farmyard manure
  • Waste
  • The Pollution Prevention and Control Regulations (Scotland) 2000

Poaching and soil erosion on grassland

Poaching can be a problem when livestock are wintered on grassland, particularly around gateways, feeding areas and watering points. This can lead to risks of soil erosion and compaction. Poaching can occur where the land is 'cut-up' through livestock moving or tramping on wet soils. This removes the vegetative cover, leaving the soil open to the elements and prone to being washed away via surface water run-off.

Soil erosion can not only remove fertile top soil and clog up drains etc., but can also lead to water pollution if the sediment is washed into watercourses. Guidance is offered to farmers on how to prevent soil erosion and compaction, in the 4 point plan, farm soils plan and the PEPFAA code.

Livestock slurry and farmyard manure

In order to avoid poaching and damage to grassland, as well as to improve productivity, many farmers house their livestock over the winter months. The manure or slurry produced is collected and stored prior to spreading to land as a fertiliser. Livestock manures and slurries offer a valuable source of plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Taking account of the nutrients applied to land as slurry or manure, and the levels of nutrients already available in the soil, then comparing them with the nutrient needs of the crop, can often result in significant savings on inorganic fertiliser use. Manures can also help increase the organic matter content of soils thereby improving soil structure and fertility.

While slurries can be beneficial for plant growth and soil nutrient levels they are relatively high in terms of Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) and can pose significant water pollution risks. Pollution risks can occur at all stages of handling livestock manures and slurries including collection, storage, transportation and land application.

In order to minimise pollution risks from steadings where livestock are housed, any slurry that is produced is required to be collected and contained. Further information is available from the Control of Pollution (Silage, Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil) (Scotland) Regulations 2003 (SSAFO).  

Spreading slurries to land can pose a significant pollution risk if the spreading takes place close to watercourses or when the ground is frozen or water logged. The rate and method of application to land is also very important. There tend to be fewer problems with solid farm yard manures from beef units. Guidance is available to farmers on how to reduce the risks of causing pollution from storing and handling livestock manures and slurries, and can be found in the PEPFAA codeand the 4 point plan.

The Pollution Prevention and Control Regulations (Scotland) 2000

The Pollution Prevention and Control (PPC) Scotland Regulationsintroduced an integrated approach to controlling pollution from a specified list of sources. The main aim is to protect the whole environment by measures designed to prevent or, where that is not practicable, reduce emissions to the air, water or land. The regulations define emissions for activities with the largest pollution potential ('Part A' activities). These include the direct or indirect release of substances, vibration, heat or noise from individual or diffuse sources in an installation into the air, water or land.

PPC is concerned with regulating certain specified activities carried out at installations. Typically, an installation will comprise one or more activities listed by the regulations, plus any directly associated activities with the potential to cause pollution taking place on the same site. The operator of a new or existing PPC installation must obtain a permit from SEPA before beginning to operate.

When determining a permit application, SEPA shall take account of the general principles that:

  • all the appropriate preventative measures are taken against pollution -  in particular through the application of the best techniques available to the operator;
  • no significant pollution is caused;
  • any waste produced is recovered or, where it is technically and economically impossible, it is disposed of while avoiding or reducing any impact on the environment;
  • energy is used efficiently;
  • the necessary measures are taken to prevent environmental accidents and limit their consequences;
  • upon definitive cessation of activities in the installation, the necessary measures should be taken to avoid any pollution risk and to return the installation to a state where ground contamination is not significantly worse than it was when the permit was granted

A PPC permit once granted will place legally binding conditions on the operation of the installation to ensure that the principles listed above are achieved.

PPC applies directly to the intensive rearing of pigs and chickens in installations exceeding specified size thresholds. Further information is available at: PPC: Intensive Agriculture

Sheep

There are approximately 7.4 million sheep on approximately 13,600 holdings in Scotland. Sheep farming is found throughout Scotland and is the dominant agricultural activity in many of the hill and upland areas.

Sheep are typically reared outdoors on grass and only brought inside for lambing, although lambing can and does take place outdoors. The main lambing period is in spring and typically most lambs are sold by the autumn. During the winter months when grass growth declines, supplementary feeding is provided, usually with hay or silage.

There are a number of issues relevant to sheep farming, among them:

  • Sheep dip
  • Carcass disposal

Sheep dip

Sheep dipping plays an important role in the maintenance of good animal welfare, and combined with other good flock management techniques, is commonly used to control ectoparasites such as sheep scab. SEPA is involved in the Scottish Sheep Scab Industry working group and the UK sheep dip pollution reduction programme, to ensure that environmental issues are addressed.

Due to the acutely toxic nature of the chemicals involved, both organophosphates (OP) and synthetic pyrethroid (SP) dips in small quantities can be sufficient to wipe out aquatic life in surface waters for considerable distances. SP dips are 100 times more toxic in the aquatic environment than OP dips and as a result have come under particular scrutiny. SP dips are not currently available on the market – further information is available from the VMD website.

Surface waters and groundwater are interlinked and the contamination of one can seriously affect the quality of the other. Groundwater can become contaminated through interaction with contaminated surface waters or via the infiltration of spilt or waste dip through the soil. The effects can be long lasting and have implications for both environmental quality and for the subsequent use of water, e.g. a drinking water supply.

Due to the toxic nature of sheep dip chemicals, an authorisation under the Controlled Activities Regulations (CAR) must be held prior to the disposal of waste sheep dip to land. The authorisation will identify an area of land where disposal can take place and will contain conditions to prevent pollution occurring from the disposal activity. Authorisations can be applied for at local SEPA offices.

There are a number of potential routes whereby sheep dip chemicals can enter the water environment. It is important to consider these in order to manage the pollution risks that sheep dipping can pose. There are three main sources; the sheep dipping facility; the treated sheep themselves and the disposal of the waste dip.

The PEPFAA codeand the Sheep Dipping Code of Practice (264kb) contain advice on how to prevent pollution by sheep dip chemicals.

Sheep Dipping Code of Practice for Scottish farmers, crofters and contractors

The Sheep Dipping Code of Practice (264kb) provides straightforward guidance on pollution prevention and good practice aimed at all involved in any aspect of sheep dipping. The code describes the legislative requirements and offers guidance on managing the pollution risks posed by sheep dips and complying with the relevant regulations.

Carcass disposal

The disposal of animal carcasses on farms can pose risks to the environment as well as to human and animal health. 

There are a number of options for cacass disposal on a farm. In order to protect the environment and the welfare of the public, the Animal By-Products (Scotland) Regulations 2003, state that disposal should be via an approved route, to rendering, incineration or to the National Fallen Stock Scheme. More details can be found at: Animal By-Products (Scotland) Regulations 2003.

In some designated areas of Scotland, on-farm disposal is permitted if no alternative disposal route is available. The PEPFAA code provides guidance on the safe disposal of animal carcasses on farms.