Tackling agricultural pollution through the Environmental Farming Scheme

Date published: 03 September 2019

The EFS Wider Level supports farmers to create ‘green infrastructure’ in the wider countryside, outside of environmentally designated sites and priority habitats. This could include land that is farmed more intensively.


It contains a range of measures which farmers can put in place to improve water quality, enhance biodiversity, and mitigate against climate change. Examples of green infrastructure include woodland, hedgerows and margins of unfarmed land along riverbanks called ‘riparian buffers’. These features can be particularly beneficial on intensively farmed land, where generally there is less habitat to support biodiversity and pressures on water quality are greatest.

How EFS can help to improve water quality

Pollution from agriculture is causing almost 40% of river water bodies to fail ‘good’ WFD status in NI. This is primarily due to high levels of phosphorus in the water, leading to excessive algae and aquatic plant growth, which is called eutrophication. This process can lead to critically low levels of oxygen in the water, with the potential for fish kills.

Phosphorus from manures and chemical fertilisers may enter rivers and lakes directly through run off and sub-surface flow, or indirectly, when attached to silt and sediment through soil erosion.

Cattle accessing watercourses can also cause water pollution from direct contamination by manure and from sediment caused by erosion and poaching of banks.

Creating riparian buffer strips and fencing of watercourses through EFS can reduce these nutrient and sediment inputs. The vegetation that grows in buffer strips and on banks, helps prevent run off of nutrients and sediment reaching the watercourse. It also provides habitat to support biodiversity. Therefore, riparian buffer strips provide much more environmental benefit in return for taking a relatively small amount of land out of production.

However, it is important to note that land used for riparian buffer strips still remains eligible for the Basic Payment Scheme, provided Single Farm Payment was paid on the land in 2008, as it contributes to meeting the Water Framework Directive objective of achieving 'good' water quality status.

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