UK farmers lose EU nitrate pollution case

European Court strengthens the hand of national regulators to require reduction measures

A group of British farmers has failed in the European Court of Justice in an attempt to overturn classification of their land as vulnerable to nitrate pollution and therefore requiring restrictions on farming practices. The court rejected their principal argument that the UK authorities' decision to impose the classification misinterpreted EU law since farms were not the only source of nitrate pollution in the area.

Under the EU directive on nitrate pollution of water from agricultural sources (91/676), member states must identify areas where levels of nitrate in water are above 50 milligrams per litre or threaten to breach this limit, and to classify them as "nitrate vulnerable" zones. States must then require nitrate reduction measures, such as limiting the nitrate content of fertilisers and carefully timing their application.

In 1996, the UK agriculture ministry designated agricultural areas along the rivers Waveney, Blackwater and Chelmer in southern England as nitrate vulnerable zones and began to enforce nitrate reduction plans. A group of farmers objected to the move in the English High Court, claiming that farming was not the sole source of nitrate pollution in the region. The case was referred to the European court in 1997.

Yesterday, the court ruled that, according to the terms of the directive, farmland can be deemed nitrate vulnerable if national authorities consider that agricultural discharges of nitrogen compounds make a "significant contribution" to the overall nitrate concentration. The directive does not oblige member states to identify precisely what proportion of the pollution comes from agriculture, it stated. The court ruled that if the farmers' interpretation of the directive were accepted, it would cause numerous cases of agricultural land contributing significantly to nitrate pollution to fall outside the directive's scope. This would be "contrary to the directive's spirit and purpose," it stated.

The farmers also claimed that the UK authorities had acted against the polluter pays principle, as they were actually paying for other people's pollution through the costs borne by having to adopt new farming methods. They also said that the enforcement of the nitrate-reducing farming practices on their land was an infringement of private property rights. Neither of these claims was upheld.

Follow Up:
European Court of Justice, tel: +353 43031.

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