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No margin for error in the buffer end zone

July 14, 2021

Over the last 18 months buffer zones by way of social distancing have become second nature to us in order to protect that which we value. Here, CAFRE Agri Environment Adviser Regina McBennett highlights the importance of keeping your distance in an agricultural context.

A buffer zone is an area of ground adjacent to water, hedgerows or windbreak which cannot receive direct application of nutrient or chemical and provides a space for aquatic organisms, plants, fish and insects to flourish. They constitute that critical area that needs to be observed and maintained to enhance the protection of a specific conservation area. The buffer zone must be sufficient in size to prevent contact by prohibitive substances such as fertiliser, organic manures and plant protection products (PPPs) that have been applied to adjacent lands.

Of course those buffer zones adjacent to watercourses carry extra importance. The majority of products licensed require an unsprayed area to be maintained adjacent to rivers, lakes and drains. A minimum of one metre applies to all such zones when we are using plant protection products.

As we approach mid-season in grassland and tillage enterprises ongoing fertiliser and farmyard manure applications coupled with another opportunity to spray weeds in second cut silage swards, the continued protection of our watercourses and hedgerows is essential. Without due care and attention, including the following of all product manufacturers’ instructions, nutrients and chemicals could make their way into the water causing pollution.

The starting point to define the buffer zone is to establish where the top of the bank is. Regina explains that in simple language the top of the bank is where the water would ingress into the field and you measure the recommended margin from this point. The extent and size of buffer zone varies considerably and can range from 1m to 70 m and beyond depending on the product being applied. Additionally buffer zones are a legal requirement and may alter depending on the time of year, e.g. the early opening slurry period and the final closing phase in the autumn. This is mainly because soil conditions are not deemed to be optimal at these times.

There are many pathways which lend themselves to run off and no farming enterprise escapes – be that, soil type, slopes, tramlines, and drain flow from wet soils to name but a few. Farmers and contractors must exercise responsible practices including awareness of weather forecasts, reading and following individual product label requirements for mixing and application rates, and the practice of retaining accurate records for 3 years.

Local Environment Risk Assessment for Pesticides (LERAP) encourages farmers to adopt best practice measures on using spray drift reducing technology to minimise the impact of pesticide exposure on the environment while also improving farm efficiency. LERAP is sub-divided into Buffer Zones Category A 5 metres (cannot be reduced) and Category B (may be reduced down to 1metre).

The main category outlined allows farmers to reduce the size of mandatory untreated areas near a water course which in turn allows farmers to make more effective use of their agricultural land while helping to protect aquatic life.

While tillage farms apply PPPs regularly and on larger farms there are dedicated sprayer operators, the grassland sector has far more occasional use. PPPs are used on grassland just once in every 5 years and only 5% of the grassland area is sprayed in any one year. However grassland vegetation buffers are the backstop to mop up runoff and prevent sediment reaching our watercourses. Many grassland herbicides used to treat common rush are routinely detected by water companies and environmental agencies and a stark fact is that the coating found on a lid cap of a PPP could pollute a waterway 30km in length.

PPPs are only registered if a risk assessment proves that the products can be used safely with no unacceptable affects to human health and the environment. All those who use PPPs should adhere to best practice and be mindful that the agriculture and horticulture industry are constantly under scrutiny and licences for PPPs can be revoked.

The value of buffer zones beside watercourses shouldn’t be underestimated. They protect our waterways from runoff and help meet LERAP requirements, whilst contributing to building a healthy environment.

Working to install or extend buffer zones next to watercourses and extend their width or length for long and steep slopes is in itself a significant and positive measure towards the protection of key watercourses and habitats.

When the pressure is on to complete work, it is all too easy to try to go out when ground conditions or the weather forecast is not ideal. Managing soil correctly will reduce soil erosion and run off. The need to plan operations to maintain soil structure and organic matter that will reduce rapid drainage and leaving some surface trash is important to help protect soils from rain drop impact.

Regina concludes that proactive management of buffer zones is the best way to ensure we all keep our distance from the negative and harmful repercussions.