Agriculture and the environment

Nitrate Vulnerable Zones

All plants require nitrogen for healthy growth, and farmers apply nitrogen fertilisers to their crops to ensure a successful harvest. However, excess nitrates that aren’t absorbed by plants can harm the environment and humans by leaching from soils into groundwater, and running off the land into waterways.

Nitrates Directive and NVZs

The European Commission’s Nitrates Directive 91/676/EEC aims to protect water quality across Europe by promoting the use of good farming practices that prevent nitrates from polluting the water environment. 

Areas where the concentrations of nitrate in water exceed, or are likely to exceed, the levels set in the Directive are designated as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) and mandatory rules, set out in Action Programmes, must be enforced to reduce nitrate loss from agricultural land and to protect human health and resources from water pollution. 

We produced the Action Programme for Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (Scotland) Regulations 2008 (as amended), to meet Scotland’s legal and environmental obligations for NVZs. These regulations set out what is required from farmers to comply with the NVZ rules. 

NVZs in Scotland

We review the designations every four years in line with the Nitrates Directive. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) monitors nitrate concentrations in surface and ground water on our behalf.

There are currently five NVZs in Scotland:

  • Lower Nithsdale
  • Lothian and Borders
  • Strathmore and Fife (including Finavon)
  • Moray, Aberdeenshire/Banff and Buchan
  • Stranraer Lowlands

We have published maps of all the NVZs.

If a farm is registered online with Rural Payments and Services, the owner can log on and view a detailed map of their holding that will indicate whether any fields are within an NVZ. If this isn’t possible, they should contact their local Rural Payments and Inspections Division (RPID) area office.

Farms partially within NVZs need only take NVZ measures on the specific fields designated as within NVZs. However, aspects of the Action Programme represent best practice in any case, and there are similar legislative requirements for non-NVZ fields, which apply across Scotland.

Find further guidance on best practice and these regulations below:

NVZ guidance

We have produced guidelines for farmers with holdings within NVZs to help them comply with the Action Programme for Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (Scotland) Regulations 2008.

We have also produced an Nmax calculator to help farmers with calculating an Nmax limit for a crop type and with recording compliance with other key elements of the Regulations. 

Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) has produced the following technical notes to provide the nitrogen recommendations for crop types not listed in the guidelines for farmers:

Residential Dwellings and NVZs

In relation to Residential Environmental Report enquiries to the Scottish Government, please note, the Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) Action Programme rules only apply to agricultural land. Where a property is only being used for residential purposes the NVZ rules do not apply and a residential property check is not relevant. However householders on private water supplies in NVZs are advised to check the quality of the private water supply. Analysis can be carried out by local authority environmental health departments.

Grassland derogation

The Nitrates Directive limits the total amount of nitrogen from livestock manure (including that deposited by grazing animals) that can be applied on a farm to 170 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per year. However, we have secured a derogation from the NVZ Action Programme (Scotland) Regulations 2008 allowing farms that meet certain conditions to apply up to 250 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per year.

To be eligible to apply for the derogation, a farm must meet the following criteria:

  • 80% of the agricultural area of the farm must be grassland (grassland is defined in the guidance booklet)
  • farmers will need to apply each year to the Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate
  • an application limit of 250kg of nitrogen per hectare per year from manure from 'grazing livestock' (cattle, sheep, deer and goats)
  • livestock manures may not be spread on grassland that is to be cultivated in the autumn
  • grassland on sandy soils must only be cultivated in the spring
  • ploughed grass must be followed by a crop with a high nitrogen requirement
  • the crop rotation must not include leguminous or other plants which fix atmospheric nitrogen. This will not apply to clover in grassland with less than 50% clover or to other legumes that are under-sown with grass
  • the results of nitrogen and phosphorus analysis in soil shall be available for each farm benefiting from a derogation. Sampling and analysis must be carried out at least once every four years
  • a phosphorus fertilisation plan must be prepared for each field

Applications for the derogation must be made by 30 April each year, using the derogation application form.

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