Irish farmers react angrily to EU decision on nitrates derogation

Farmers say the failure to secure an extension means that from January 2026 some will be obliged to cull their herds

Farming organisations have sharply criticised Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue for failing to reach agreement with the EU on extending Ireland’s derogation from parts of the nitrates directive.

Under current arrangements some farmers are allowed to maintain stocking levels suitable to the spread up to 250kg of organic fertiliser, while others are restricted to 220kg. The designation of which farms can host the higher stocking levels is dictated by efforts farmers themselves make to protect the environment and the likely impact on water quality in the local area.

Farmers said following the failure to get extension to the derogation, when the current period expires in January 2026, some of them will be obliged to cull their herds, a move that would make their operations less viable.

Negotiations had been ongoing but the European Commission indicated on Wednesday that Ireland’s nitrates derogation limits will be cut to the lower level.


Responding, Mr McConalogue said farmers and the Government must share “collective” responsibility for the EU decision. “Unfortunately we haven’t achieved the progress that we needed to under our current derogation, which we are halfway through, to be able to maintain the 250kg of organic nitrogen per hectare maximum,” Mr McConalogue told RTÉ Radio.

“We haven’t met the criteria we needed to. Collectively, we have to take steps that will see us improve water quality. It has been disimproved in some circumstances.”

Asked whether blame for the situation lies with farmers, he added that there are a number of stakeholders who must take responsibility.

“Collectively, it’s the work and responsibility of all of us,” he said. “Myself, farmers, and everyone on the agricultural sector.

“Indeed outside of that as well, because there are significant issues in towns and villages as well, particularly in relation to phosphorus and urban waste.”

An Environmental Protection Agency report last June said levels of polluting nitrogen and phosphorus in Irish watercourses arising from human activities such as farming and forestry have risen to unacceptably high levels.

Overall, there was “no significant improvement in the biological quality of our rivers or lakes” last year, the State agency found.

When excess nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus – enter watercourses, they cause an overgrowth of plants and algae, which clogs up watercourses, uses up oxygen and harms fish and other aquatic life and may pose a threat to human health. These nutrients are among “the most significant stressors on water quality and ecosystem health”, the EPA warned.

Mr McConalogue said Ireland was one of just three countries in Europe that have the derogation. “We’ve 7,000 farmers out of 130,000 family farms who avail of it. Within that 7,000 farmers, there are about 3,000 farmers who are between the 250 and the 220 and will be affected by this,” he said.

However, farm orgainsiations expressed anger and called for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to take up negotiations with his EU counterparts.

IFA president Tim Cullinan said “this has large ramifications for Irish farmers if it is allowed to transpire. Dairy farmers are going to take a direct hit on income. But in reality, it will have knock-on repercussions for all sectors due to the large disruption to the land market the decision will bring about”.

“Have no doubt about it, this is an absolute failure on behalf of both the Minister and the Department of Agriculture. As soon as they agreed to the flawed interim review process, without consulting anyone, they backed themselves into a corner that they have so far failed to get out of.

“IFA put forward alternative proposals for a reduction to 220kg organic nitrogen limit, which have effectively been ignored. Instead, the blunt instrument of reduction in stocking rates is being implemented without any scientific evidence that it will improve water quality.

“Given how serious this issue is, we need an intervention from the Taoiseach with the European Commission. This change will do very significant damage to the incomes of derogation farmers and will have knock-on consequences for all farmers in the land market,” he concluded.

The Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association was more strident in its response with president Pat McCormack accusing the Government of “selling out” family dairy farms and rolling over for the commission on the question of maintaining Ireland’s current derogation on the nitrates directive. He condemned what he said was the Government’s “abject surrender” on the issue.

The young farmers’ association Macra na Feirme said “the consequent reduction in stocking rates” would have “a negative effect on farming succession in Ireland. Land that is already at a premium, will increase further out of reach of new entrant farmers as demand will further increase”.

“Now more than ever is a succession scheme required to support young farmers to enter the industry, without this support there will be no young farmers and no industry” said Macra national president Elaine Houlihan.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter