Getting a true picture of ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland remains one of the "biggest challenges" for the agri-food industry and must be addressed urgently, according to the Ulster Famers’ Union (UFU).

The comments were made following the publication of a report on ammonia emissions by an expert working group commissioned by the region's Department of Agriculture.

UFU deputy president Victor Chestnutt said: "We reckon they are basing a lot of it on UK ammonia figures - and in the UK the majority of cattle are housed on solid floors, whereas over here the majority of cattle are housed on slatted floors.

Mitigating factors

"Ammonia emissions from slatted tanks are almost 40% less compared to emissions from solid floors but there is no consideration made for this.

"The industry has also already moved to reduce the crude protein intake in diets in pigs, poultry and livestock and we've had no recognition of this - a 1% cut in crude protein cuts 10% off the ammonia emissions.

Around 30% of our slurry is now put on by dribble bar or injection or a trailing shoe - that also gives us a reduction but no one is giving us credit for already starting to move in the right direction.

"Ammonia emissions are only measured in three sites - Hillsborough, Coleraine, and Enniskillen - and due to budget cuts they're already talking about cutting two of those.

"Experts say the test results only accurately reflect a 15-mile radius - so how do we really know what's happening. The recommendations themselves suggest there should be more research carried out."

'A lot to answer for'

UFU president, Barclay Bell, said Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) have "a lot to answer for" when it comes to the approach taken to tackle ammonia emissions.

He said: “The report largely vindicates our views that the department has got it wrong when it comes to mapping ammonia emissions in Northern Ireland.

We cannot understand how they have arrived at the decisions they have. There has been a complete lack of transparency, and communication with industry has been poor.

"It is no secret that a number of planning applications and Tier 2 Farm Business Improvement Scheme applications are being held up as a result of issues with ammonia," Bell said.

"We have been critical of the way DAERA and NIEA have dealt with the issue. We believe the science they are using in Northern Ireland is flawed and that a more robust evidence baseline is needed.”

'The best science available'

However, a spokesman for DAERA said the department refutes the claims.

He said: “It is well established that ammonia emissions are contributing to loss of biodiversity and the degradation of protected sites and priority habitats in Northern Ireland.

The agri-food sector plays a very significant role in our economy and, as a consequence, agriculture is the major source of ammonia emissions - approximately 93% of the total.

"Whilst estimates of ammonia emissions from agriculture and associated nitrogen deposition on sensitive sites will become more precise as new scientific information becomes available, the quantum by which habitats are currently being damaged - many at two to four times above the pollution loading they can tolerate - means urgent action is required.

“To inform its actions DAERA uses the best science available, through the UK-wide monitoring and modelling programme (National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory)," the spokesperson said.

"The confidence limits associated with the current estimates of ammonia emissions are taken on board by the department to make informed, evidence-based decisions.”