How Danes tackle N reduction

By Jackie Harrigan.

The Danish government is working with farmers at a catchment level to meet European Union nitrogen loss regulations.

WORKING AT A CATCHMENT level and with groups of farmers is how the Danish government has tackled reducing nitrogen loss into waterways. A new European Union Water Framework Directive requires farmers to work towards clean water by 2027, with the main focus on N pollution in 90 catchment areas.

Initially the regulation was focused on agricultural practices based on general regulation methods, but as regulation increased so too did costs for the farming businesses.

To meet the ecological targets without severe economical consequences there has been a gradual shift towards edge-of-field mitigation measures. The present loss of nutrients to the coastal waters is 56,300 tonnes N.

In the political agreement on agriculture, it states that a reduction of 4500 tonnes N shall be obtained with either extra catch crops (in addition to the present requirements) or collective measures (wetland and peatland restoration, constructed wetlands and reforestation). For some catchments the extra measures are expected to reduce the losses by 50%. In others no extra effort is needed.

Simon Rosendahl Bjorholm from Danish agri industry group Seges Innovation outlined to the recent Farmed Landscapes Research Centre conference at Massey University how the previously farmer-owned organisation has trained and mobilised a team of catchment officers from the ranks of farm advisers, who have existing relationships with farmers.

Seges held 30 training days last year, teaching the technical tools around edge-of-field mitigations, how to advise farmers and work with the local municipalities. The programme was launched six years ago, aiming to reduce excess N in each of the catchments. Along with targets to build 8000 constructed wetlands, to restore 25,000 hectares of river valley natural wetlands and other off-field measures, and rewetting of 100,000ha of drained peatlands, a government-wide cross-party Environmental Guarantee was established to provide government financial support, but set a two-yearly review period to ensure progress.

Research showed the cost of funding the environmental cleanup would be NZ$400 million/year if farmers had to fund it themselves.

The catchment sizes vary from about 25 farmers up to 1000 farmers in the larger catchments, and the level of degradation and therefore remediation varies across the country. In some of the most vulnerable catchments it will be necessary to apply a drain filter solution on almost every drainage system.

The farmers were facing mandatory regulation for the next 40 years or collective measures including use of catch crops and other measures like reducing N fertilisers.

“Each alternative has a price,” Bjorholm related, “and each catchment had a different requirement and in the past their projects had been government-led – not farmer-led.”

After starting out with catchment officers and a proven constructed wetlands design six years ago, 300 wetlands have been finished and 700- 800 further funding applications have been lodged. The target for 2023 was to have installed 1500 wetlands and by 2027, 8000 wetlands.

What has worked

  • Farmers need ownership of the project, so they apply for the EU funding and make the decisions, guided by the catchment officers on where to build the wetland and how to design it.
  • Using farm advisers with existing relationships with farmers who were then trained as catchment officers has worked well. “You need lots of time to drink cups of coffee if you don’t know each other already.”
  • SCALGO Live is a mapping tool used by the catchment officers to show the topographical catchment area, tracking where water flows and where it will flood – the maps are very accurate and useful and have since been developed for use in other parts of Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and Poland. Farmers can log in and see where to build the wetlands. Also Landmand. dk maps the whole country.
  • A targeted letter from the farming organisation to 5000 farmers with an invitation to apply for wetland funding with a map attached of suitable sites – got them starting to think about engaging.
  • Field days showing wetlands developed on 16 different farms.
  • Communications showing the benefits of wetlands, and how much N could potentially be removed from drainage water.

Problems encountered

  • The funding system was sub-par, Bjorholm said, so farmers were left waiting and unable to apply for the funding for work completed.
  • Inflexibility in design meant farmers were at risk of losing funding if the very precise design layout was not followed.
  • Potential for farmers to go broke if politicians feel the Environmental Guarantee is not working.

Bjorholm said a Plan B was also developed, where collective meetings would engage with many farmers from a catchment and plan to build bigger collective wetlands.

Once farmers were brought together and were able to discuss the possibilities they would move through the ‘being frustrated’ phase and start to engage in a collective process.

Initially most farmers were sceptical and rejective towards the government’s environmental targets, Bjorholm said.

But when they realised they could decide the type and location of the measures their mindset became constructive and they became more positive about the task – and could work together to locate the best place for the wetlands and eventually encourage each other to engage.

Learning from Denmark

  • Need for transparency in environmental targets, the status of the waterways and the need for action.
  • Farmers need certainty – if the process is not working the reliable consequences were the Environmental Guarantee
  • Flexibiliity in the design criteria
  • Funding schemes must be functional
  • Collective meetings (creates acknowledgement of better solutions)
  • Third party assistance of catchment officers to reduce admin burden on farmers.

Rewetting peatlands

Denmark has 2.5 million hectares of agricultural land and 170,000ha of peatland.

  • Peatland rewetting has been broadly agreed on by all parties for preserving and allowing sequestration of carbon but work has not yet begun on rewetting or deciding what will happen to the farmers currently farming the drained peat soils.