Soil pollution from farming: preventing and minimising

Manage the environmental impact of farming on the land, including minimising waste production and use of water on crops and livestock.


Many farms use, store or spread substances that can pollute water, soil or the air if not used with due care and attention. Everyone involved in the industry, including farm staff and contractors, should, therefore, follow good agricultural practice, to minimise the risk of causing pollution, while allowing economic agriculture.

There is a range of information on this site for farmers, professional growers and land managers on the environmental impact of farming. You’ll find information about:

  • the management of soil fertility, crop protection, pasture and grazing
  • minimising waste production
  • storage and disposal of farm wastes
  • the appropriate use of water on farms for livestock and crops
  • how to store and use potential pollutants to avoid contamination of the natural environment

This guide introduces the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra’s) code of practice - protecting our water, soil and air: a Code of Good Agricultural Practice for farmers, growers and land managers (CoGAP). CoGAP gives detailed information on how to protect water, soil and air on farms. It also outlines the different ways you can reduce the risk of pollution, and introduces other guides that provide more detailed advice.

Code of good practice for for farmers, growers and land managers

Protecting our water, soil and air: a CoGAP combines and updates three previous codes for water, soil and air.

CoGAP explains the key actions that farmers and growers take to improve environmental protection, and shows how it is also possible to achieve cost savings by making these improvements. The code helps you to meet your legal requirements, including those related to cross compliance.

CoGAP also offers advice on best practice for farmers and growers, to minimise the risk of pollution, protect natural resources, and allow efficient working. It advises you on handling crop nutrients, crop protection and dealing with waste, to prevent adverse effects on watercourses, soil and air. It includes information on:

  • causes and results of pollution
  • responsibilities of workers
  • steps to take if pollutant spillage or leaks occur
  • safe handling and disposal of wastes
  • water supplies on the farm for crops and livestock

If you claim payments under the Single Payment Scheme (SPS), you will need to comply with Statutory Management Requirements that are based on EU directives. These include measures designed for environmental protection, so CoGAP will help ensure that you meet the requirements for compliance.

Soil fertility and plant nutrients

Having a good soil management plan can help maintain the fertility of your soil without wasting nutrients. You should regularly measure the level of nutrients already present in your soil so that you can add a balanced amount of fertilisers, organic manure and lime. This will maintain the right level of soil fertility, while reducing the potential for damage to the soil. It also minimises losses from the soil, which can contaminate air and water. Adding precisely the right amount of nutrients also helps minimise your costs and improve your profitability. For more information, see the guide on managing nutrients and fertilisers.

You can download the 2010 version of the Fertiliser Manual (RB209) from the Defra website (PDF, 4.10MB).

You may prefer to purchase a hard copy of the Fertiliser Manual RB209 on the Stationery Office (TSO) website.

When adding nutrients, it’s important to do so in a way that avoids watercourses, and which prevents contamination through run-off of rain water. If you are in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ), there are specific rules which restrict the amount of fertiliser and manure you can apply to the soil. For more information, see the guide on NVZs.

Nitrogen application at or near designated nature conservation sites can be a breach of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, and the Habitats Regulations.

Applying nitrogen can also affect other non-designated sites - when the input of nutrients causes a reduction in biodiversity. For more information, see the guide on managing nutrients and fertilisers.

Management plans: manure, nutrients, soil and crop protection

Management plans are one way of helping to improve the efficiency of your farm business. They could save you money by reducing waste and avoiding overuse of fertilisers, as well as helping you to comply with standards of environmental management.

There are several areas where you could usefully prepare management plans. You may find it more efficient to prepare all your management plans at the same time, because a lot of the information you need is duplicated from plan to plan. You can also combine the plans into one document, so you can get a better overview of your business. You may find it helpful to use an independent consultant, who can take an outsider’s view of your farm and its activities.

Manure management

A manure management plan will show you how to deal with livestock manures in the most efficient and environmentally friendly way. Used in conjunction with a nutrient management plan, it can show you how to make the best use of livestock manures, by helping you decide where and when to spread organic materials. This can benefit the soil and the crop, while cutting your fertiliser bill and reducing the risk of water pollution.

Nutrient management

A nutrient management plan will ensure you make the best use of inorganic fertilisers and maximise the benefit of nutrients in organic manures that you apply to the soil. It will help you decide how much lime and fertiliser to use, taking into account sources of nutrients, soil nutrient content, soil type and rainfall. The plan will also help you cut the risk of pollution from unnecessary overuse of nutrients.

Soil management

A soil management plan will help you to provide the best growing conditions for crops and grass, and to minimise the risk of water run-off and soil erosion. A well-designed soil management plan will help the long-term productivity of your land by matching crops and rotations to the characteristics of your soil. Your soil management plan should be reviewed annually and revised to take into account changes in the make-up of the soil.

Crop protection management

A crop protection management plan will help you to maximise the efficiency with which you use pesticides, while minimising their environmental impact. It will help you reduce or eliminate risks to human health, harm to bio-diversity or pollution of water. It will show you how to use alternative methods of control, and to choose pesticides with the least risk of adverse effects.

Handling and storing waste and farm substances

Many substances used on the farm have the potential to contaminate soil, water and the air. Some can also have the effect of reducing biodiversity at sites with nature conservation value.

Slurry, fuel oil, waste oil, silage, fertilisers, pesticides and solid wastes must all be handled and stored with extreme care. Precautions you should take include:

  • maintaining buildings, pipework, storage tanks and other structures - both above and below ground - in good condition to prevent leaks
  • installing adequate insulation and ventilation to reduce CO2 emissions
  • handling silage and effluents efficiently, including field and bale silage - for more information, see the guide on sewage sludge, slurry and silage
  • disposing of silage plastic and tyres in the prescribed manner
  • collecting, storing and treating livestock manures, slurry and dirty water to prevent pollution of watercourses
  • storing and handling pesticides correctly to prevent leaks and spillages
  • checking if a location is part of or near a designated conservation site before applying any pesticides or fertilisers

When disposing of waste on the farm, it is important to be aware of agricultural waste requirements. You can read an introduction to the waste regulations on the Environment Agency website.

For more information, see the guides on minimising farm waste, composting and recycling, non-hazardous waste: treatment and disposal, and hazardous waste: treatment and disposal.

Soil management: pesticides, fertilisers, cultivation and grazing

Good soil management is essential to maximise production in the long-term and to prevent unacceptable environmental damage. See the guide on soil use.

As part of your soil management plan, you will, therefore, need to make an assessment of the nature of your land, to establish which crops can be grown and what soil management practices are needed. You must comply with the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations, which is a Cross Compliance requirement. Under Cross Compliance, you must comply with the appropriate good agricultural and environmental compliance (GAEC) requirements and in particular GAEC 1. For more information, see the guide on standards of GAEC.

Correct soil care and management includes:

  • following the appropriate crop rotation programme
  • avoiding soil compaction
  • managing crops and harvesting
  • managing special soils such as peat
  • knowing when to reduce the application of nutrients such as nitrogen - see the guide on managing nutrients and fertilisers
  • knowing when and how to apply organic wastes, manures and slurries - see the guide on sewage sludge, slurry and silage
  • using best practice in the use of pesticides
  • following correct livestock management practices
  • following best practice in soil handling and moving, including the production of turf

Specialised crops

Specialised crops grown under cover or in contained facilities pose particular environmental risks. They often require high use of energy, water, fertiliser and pesticides - all of which can have harmful environmental impacts.

In order to minimise these impacts, it is important to:

  • reduce CO2 emissions to the minimum by using energy efficiently and fully exploiting non-carbon energy sources
  • insulate walls, roofs and heating pipes, and maintain boilers and burners
  • minimise the use and potential dispersal into the air, water or soil of nutrients, pesticides or organic matter
  • use the minimum quantity of water and nutrients necessary for optimum crop performance
  • minimise waste, and carefully manage the disposal of liquid and solid wastes from the growing facility

Control of specialist crops

There are specialist requirements for crops like mushrooms and watercress.

If you produce mushrooms, you can compost up to 10,000 cubic metres of biodegradable waste from mushroom cultivation, by registering an exemption with the Environment Agency. You must prevent water run-off from polluting watercourses or ground water, and you should collect it and recycle it wherever possible. Soakaways should not be used if the dirty water contains residues of pesticides or disinfectants.

Producers of watercress must manage their facility to minimise water use and prevent the discharge of polluted water in to watercourses, rivers etc, since this can have serious impacts on the aquatic environment.

Farm waste minimisation

Waste storage, handling and disposal are highly regulated because of the potential risks to public health and the environment. Some wastes - eg pesticides - carry inherent risks, while other wastes - eg dead farm animals - can create risks if not handled and disposed of correctly.

Like all producers and handlers of waste, farmers have a duty of care. This legal responsibility helps ensure that waste does not pollute the environment and is only disposed of by a registered waste carrier on a properly authorised site.

Read more about duty of care and authorised waste handlers on the page on ‘waste storage and disposal legislation’.

There are special requirements for dealing with hazardous waste - including the disposal of liquid wastes and oil. There are also particular requirements for the disposal of animal carcasses.

For more information on handling farm waste, see the guides on minimising farm waste, composting and recycling, non-hazardous waste: treatment and disposal, hazardous waste: treatment and disposal and dealing with animal by-products.

Use and licence water supplies on farms

Water is a limited resource and efficient use is essential to protect supplies. Preparing a water management plan for your farm will help minimise your use and, in turn, your costs. Work out how much water you use, its sources and ways of optimising the amount you take, remembering to include both metered and non-metered sources.

Take meter readings at least once a month and remember to include in your cost calculations the amount you are charged for your licence, and your operational and maintenance costs. You must ensure that your water usage does not cause pollution to soil, air or water - see the guide on water pollution on farms.

Within your water management plan you need to include:

  • irrigation - use irrigation scheduling to ensure efficient use of water, consider boom irrigation or trickle irrigation to reduce water consumption, and check equipment regularly
  • vegetable washing - look into recycling wash water, or cleaning wash water for re-use, storing it for re-use on irrigation or for other applications such as equipment cleaning
  • water for protected crops and nursery stock - carefully control and monitor water use and minimise run-off
  • water harvesting - investigate collection of water from clean roofs for use in washing, irrigation or emergency fire-fighting
  • water for livestock - you need to provide enough water to meet the welfare needs of livestock, but look into re-using plate-cooling water for drinking, and make sure troughs are the right size to avoid spillages, which is wasteful and can cause welfare problems
  • equipment - make sure equipment is regularly maintained to ensure optimum efficiency and cleanliness
  • hygiene - harvested rainwater and re-used/cleaned water must be checked to ensure it is fit for purpose, especially if used for livestock to drink or for irrigation

Special water licences

If you want to take more than 20 cubic metres (approximately 4,400 gallons) of water a day from a river, stream or canal, or from an underground source for irrigation, you will need a water abstraction licence. You will also need a licence if you intend to divert and retain water on a watercourse. You can find information about water abstraction licensing for farms on the Environment Agency website.

Water abstraction licensing, and compliance with the terms of the licence, is a GAEC standard under cross compliance and will affect you if you receive payments under the SPS. You can find more information on GAEC 18 and planned changes affecting it on the Rural Payments Agency website.

Buffer strips next to watercourses

Farmers subject to cross compliance are playing a part in preventing the pollution of watercourses by voluntarily creating riparian buffer strips alongside water sources. See the page on advisory buffer strips next to watercourses in the guide on standards of GAEC.

Further information

Cross Compliance Helpline

0845 345 1302

Defra Helpline

08459 33 55 77

Download Defra’s CoGAP for Water, Soil and Air from the Agricultural Document Library website (PDF, 1.38MB)

Download the 2010 version of the Fertiliser Manual RB209 from the Defra website (PDF, 4.10MB)

The Fertiliser Manual RB209 purchasing information on the TSO website

Agricultural waste regulations guidance on the Environment Agency website

Water abstraction licensing advice on the Environment Agency website

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