Sustainable agriculture is dependent upon a healthy environment, according to the Chief Executive of Northern Ireland's Environment Agency (NIEA), David Small.

Small was speaking following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU).

It is hoped the agreement will build a stronger, more effective working relationship between the agency and farming community; while supporting sustainable farming in ways that benefit and protect the environment.

"This agreement between NIEA and the UFU shows a strong commitment from both parties to work together proactively to help farmers improve the environment in ways that support economic outcomes.

It focuses on improved communication and raising awareness to ensure farmers, the custodians of the countryside, receive the necessary information to fulfil their environmental responsibilities.

The agreement contains measures which are set to deliver higher levels of environmental compliance and to contribute to the achievement of relevant directives and Programme for Government targets.

It is believed these measures could increase the profitability of farm businesses through sustainable farming and innovative, resource-efficient practices.

The MoU has been discussed for quite a significant period, the UFU's Chief Executive, Wesley Aston, said.

"It was borne out of concerns that relationships between farmers and NIEA needed to be improved.

"We suggested simple things to enhance working relations and to ensure that the goals of both farmers and NIEA are realised. To finally have it officially agreed is a great achievement.

"It is a win-win for farmers and the environment and will deliver better environmental outcomes, improved compliance and farm sustainability in a way that improves relationships between farmers and NIEA," he said.

Addressing environmental challenges

Small believes this approach will help farmers address issues that may be causing damage to the environment through closer liaison with NIEA staff.

“The challenge in developing the MoU has been the balance between advocacy and regulation, and NIEA has been clear throughout the process that it will not detract from the agency’s regulatory role – a point acknowledged by the UFU.

Enforcement is one tool to achieve environmental compliance; guidance and support is another.

“This is not a softening of our regulatory approach. We are enhancing the consistency and proportionality of our approach to ensure our customers are treated fairly across the sectors.

"This is a positive step in the right direction to increase levels of compliance resulting in a healthier environment," he said.