Ireland has become a “toilet” for cross-border pollution, say campaigners, as officials investigate allegations around the movement of animal manure from Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland has the highest stocking density of livestock in the UK, with 25 million poultry birds, and intensive pig numbers at a 10-year high. But the disposal of animal waste and increasing levels of pollution may now halt the expansion of its multi-billion pound export-driven industry.
This follows the discovery of allegedly falsified letters used in planning applications for livestock farms, which has triggered multiple investigations and enforcement actions by the Northern Ireland authorities.
The problems came to light in March last year when an internal investigation by the Republic of Ireland’s agri-food advisory agency, Teagasc, found documents relating to the use of signed letters in planning applications for large-scale poultry farms in Northern Ireland.
Planning authorities accept Teagasc letters as proof that farmers in the Republic of Ireland, who received the manure, are legitimate. According to Teagasc, however, 60% of the letters examined appeared either “falsified” or “altered”.
“Northern Ireland is the dirty corner of the UK, and increasingly we are seen as the dirty corner of Europe,” said James Orr, head of Friends of the Earth NI. “Now the latest dirty secret is the exporting of huge volumes of excrement to our nearest neighbour.”
Dealing with the pollution from vast quantities of animal faeces and urine has long been the hidden scourge of Northern Ireland’s livestock industry. Whether spread on farmland as a nutrient-rich fertiliser for crop growth or fed into an anaerobic digester to generate biogas, every ton of manure must be accounted for in planning applications for intensive farms.
Northern Ireland farmers already spread more manure on their land compared with farmers in the EU, and the expansion of the intensive sector has been so significant that the environment cannot cope with the amount of manure generated.
The problem was flagged to the Northern Ireland assembly in 2012 when scientists warned that just 38% of the total poultry waste generated by the sector could be managed sustainably.
The country’s ambitious agri-food expansion planpublished in 2013, stimulated a flurry of planning applications for poultry units.
Exporting truckloads of manure to the Republic of Ireland is seven times cheaper than alternatives – such as shipping it to power plants in the Netherlands – so the authorities have sanctioned an increasing amount of cross-border movements of manure: volumes exported have jumped by 48% in the last decade. In the previous five years, this has totaled 280,000 tons of waste sent south.
The reliance of the authorities on Teagasc letters emerged thanks to Vincent Lusby, a farmer from Limavadywho was alarmed by pollution from a proposed industrial pig unit nearby.
Lusby suspected planners were giving the green light to intensive farms based on a written contract that consignments of animal waste would be exported to farms in the Republic to be spread as fertiliser – but without the legally required environmental regulations, including transboundary assessments, being implemented.
The issue is being investigated by multi-government agencies in Northern Ireland as well as the UK’s Office of Environmental Protection, an independent body that investigates breaches of environmental law.
At the center of the problem is ammonia – a toxic, sticky, pungent pollutant from livestock farming, which wreaks havoc on sensitive habitats such as bogs and wetlands, suffocating lichens and sphagnum mosses and transforming them into a gloopy mess. It is a public health problem, too, triggering respiratory issues when inhaled into the lungs.
Northern Ireland is saturated with ammonia; the jurisdiction accounts for 12% of the UK’s total emissions, despite having just 6% of the land area and 3% of the population. The Guardian has also learned that ammonia emissions from cross-border movements of livestock manure are not accounted for by the UK or Irish authorities as part of their national inventory emissions.
Only a third of river water bodies and a quarter of lakes have a “good” status, and two-thirds of bogs are in an “unfavorable” condition. Northern Ireland’s environmental agency states that critical ammonia levels are exceeded in 90% of protected habitats.
Ireland has also been grappling with escalating ammonia emissions from livestock, and has breached EU ammonia limits since 2016. Agricultural pollution is so critical that the National Trust for Ireland announced last week that it was taking the Irish government to court over its failure to protect waterways from nitrogen pollution.
In County Donegal in north-west Ireland, people are increasingly alarmed about the impact of Northern Ireland’s animal waste on their local environment. The manure is spread on land direct, or as “digestate”, a nutrient-rich byproduct of the anaerobic digestion process.
For the past two years, farmer and vet Gerard Roarty has alerted the Irish authorities about his concerns regarding spreading manure and digestate on the Donegal hills. “Ireland has become the toilet – the dumping ground – for the North’s manure,” he says. “Donegal soils are waterlogged and thin; only 10% is rich mineral soil. It cannot cope with excessive nutrients.”
Orr said the allegations showed that greater cross-border enforcement of the law may be needed. “Do we want it to be a place where the ecology is rich and diverse, or will it become a wasteland, defined by systemic environmental breaches by the competent authorities?”
Sign up for the Animals farmed monthly update to get a roundup of the best farming and food stories across the world and keep up with our investigations. You can send us your stories and thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org