Ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland

Ammonia (NH3) is an air pollutant largely emitted from agriculture which is known to have a damaging impact on biodiversity, including sensitive habitats, and ecosystem resilience, as well as human health. It is produced by many common farming activities, such as the housing of livestock, the storage and spreading of manure and slurries and the application of fertiliser. Reducing ammonia emissions across Northern Ireland is a key Departmental priority.

Why is ammonia important?

Ammonia emitted into the air is subsequently deposited as nitrogen onto land and water surfaces. Nitrogen deposition occurs in gaseous form close to the source (dry deposition) or through rainfall (wet deposition), often many miles from the original ammonia source.

Excessive nitrogen deposition can lead to significant biodiversity loss through loss of plant species and changes in ecosystem structure and function. It is estimated that 45% of the plant species extinctions occurring in the UK, between 1987 and 1999 were associated with increased nitrogen availability. Grasslands, heathlands, bogs and dune systems are particularly sensitive. 

Most of Northern Ireland, including our designated sites and other priority habitats are receiving levels of nitrogen which are significantly above their “critical load”, the concentration at which significant ecological damage occurs.

All public authorities in Northern Ireland have a legal obligation under environmental legislation to protect designated sites and priority habitats.  Current levels of ammonia emissions and nitrogen deposition will affect our ability to improve the conservation status of some habitats, as required under European law and international conventions. 

Excessive ammonia emissions can also lead to increases in particulate matter which is associated with human health impacts.

More information about Northern Ireland’s designated sites and priority habitats, including their “critical loads” for nitrogen deposition can be found at the links below:

Ammonia reduction targets

The UK has obligations under European law and international treaties to reduce ammonia emissions. By 2020, the UK must reduce its ammonia emissions by 8% and by 2030, a 16% reduction must be achieved, both in comparison to 2005 levels. Northern Ireland is expected to contribute to these UK reduction targets.

Ammonia sources

Northern Ireland is responsible for 12% of UK ammonia emissions, despite only having 3% of UK population and 6% of the land area. This relatively high contribution reflects the importance of the agriculture sector to our economy and the nature of Northern Ireland as a food-exporting region in which agriculture is dominated by livestock, with very little arable farming.

91% of NI ammonia emissions come from agriculture. Cattle are responsible for around 70% of ammonia emissions from agriculture with the more intensive pig and poultry sectors accounting for 20% of emissions. How livestock are housed and how the manure they produce is handled are key variables in the production of ammonia with the handling and storage of manure responsible for 44% of all emissions. Information on the ammonia inventory for Northern Ireland can be found at the link below:

What are DAERA doing about ammonia?

In July 2016, the then DAERA Minister Michelle McIlveen asked the Expert Working Group on Sustainable Agricultural Land Management to examine the issue of ammonia in an annex to their report. The Expert Working Group contained membership from across the spectrum of stakeholders with an interest in land, including farmers, the environment sector, the supply chain and government.

In December 2017, the Expert Working Group completed their report entitled “Making Ammonia Visible.” This Report made a number of recommendations to DAERA on how the issue of ammonia should be addressed in Northern Ireland and is available at the link below;

In December 2017, DAERA established a Project Board on Ammonia Reduction which includes membership from across DAERA. The objective of the Project Board is to work with stakeholders to achieve sustained reductions in ammonia emissions from Northern Ireland farms so that nitrogen deposition from local and background sources does not negatively impact on nature, while facilitating the sustainable development of a prosperous agri-food industry.

In April 2018, the DAERA Project Board responded to the Expert Working Group’s report on Ammonia by forwarding the group a document outlining the Department’s initial position on the Expert Working Group’s recommendations. This document is available at the link below;

The Department also has an important role as a statutory consultee on planning applications. In assessing these applications, the Department is legally obliged to consider the impact of ammonia emissions and subsequent nitrogen deposition that a proposed building development would have on the environment.

Action Plan on Ammonia

The key task of the DAERA Project Board is to develop and implement an Action Plan on Ammonia. This Action Plan should set out an approach which aims to:

  • achieve tangible and sustained reductions in ammonia emissions from Northern Ireland farms
  • reduce the impact of ammonia via nitrogen deposition on nature and habitats, and in particular, designated sites
  • respond to each of the recommendations of the Expert Working Group in their Ammonia Annex
  • encourage uptake of ammonia mitigation measures on-farm, and
  • highlight the impact of ammonia on human health, while noting the relevant uncertainties

This Action Plan is expected to be published for public consultation during 2018.

What can farmers do to reduce ammonia emissions?

There are a number of measures which farmers can take to reduce the amount of ammonia their farming system emits. These mitigations include;

  • Extending the grazing season for livestock
  • Applying stabilised urea fertilisers
  • Spreading slurries and manures using low emission techniques
  • Improving the cleanliness of farmyards
  • Reducing crude protein in livestock diets
  • Incorporating feed efficiency within decisions on genetics and breeding
  • Well designed tree plantations downwind of livestock housing
  • Covering above ground slurry stores
  • Installing low emission flooring systems in livestock housing

DAERA acknowledges that many farmers have already made good progress in implementing some of these mitigation measures. The Ammonia Action Plan is likely to include a range of these techniques with various measures considered to encourage their greater uptake by farmers.

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