Main authors: Isobel Wright
Editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: »Hasler, B. et al. (2021) Identification of cost-effective and coherent management models for drinking water protection in agriculture. FAIRWAY Project Deliverable 6.4R 55 pp


The assessment of pesticide and nitrate abatement measures used for the protection of drinking water from both surface and groundwater sources is one of FAIRWAY's research themes. For details of the methodology used for the assessment, an in-depth analysis of catch crops (a measure often used for nitrate abatement), and the general conclusion drawn from this and other case studies see »Cost-effective and coherent management models for drinking water protection.

Contents table
1. Context
2. Catch crop schemes in England
3. Farmers' current perceptions of motivations and challenges for implementing catch crops

1. Context

The Utilised Agricultural Area of England was c.9million hectares in 2019, representing 69% of the total England area (Defra 2019). Of this, the total cropped area was c4million hectares, and CAP Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) was claimed on c3.9 million hectares (2.5% less) (Defra 2020). In 1990 Nitrate Sensitive Areas (NSAs) were piloted in areas where nitrate concentrations in drinking water sources exceeded or were at risk of exceeding the limit of 50 mg/l set by the 1980 EC Drinking Water Directive. The Scheme closed to new entrants in 1998. Subsequently all the NSAs fell within the much larger areas designated as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) in 1996 under the EC Nitrate Directive (91/676/EEC). NVZs now cover 55% of land, both arable and grassland (Defra 2018a), however catch/cover crops are not a compulsory requirement of NVZs in England. In 2017 Defra estimated that catch or cover crops had been planted on 55,900 ha in the 2015/16 crop year, representing 1.2% of arable cropland (Defra, 2017).  

2. Catch crop schemes in England

There is no single scheme specifically for catch or cover crops in England but they form part of a number of economic and regulatory initiatives.

1. Basic Payment Scheme EFA

A requirement for farmers claiming the Basic Payment is to follow the greening rules including Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) and greening accounts for 30% of the total direct payment. Catch and cover crops, as defined by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), are offered as one of a list of EFA options applicable to English land use and climate conditions. The EFA area must cover at least 5% of the total area submitted on the BPS application. Farms under organic management and those with more than 75% of eligible lands either under grass or fallow may be allowed an exemption.

The RPA, which administers the BPS in England does not use the definitions of catch and cover crops outlined in earlier sections of this paper, instead giving a broader statement that catch crops and cover crops are used to protect the soil and use available nutrients between harvesting and sowing. The crops are then distinguished so that catch crops must be established by 20 August 2020 and retained until at least 14 October 2020 whilst cover crops must be established by 1 October 2020 and retained until at least 15 January 2021 (RPA, 2020). Where a catch or cover crop is established through undersowing, the period starts from the time of harvest of the main crop and remains until the next main crop is sown, even if this is less than the retain date above. There are no restrictions on the management of catch or cover crops outside these periods. The cover does not need to be destroyed at the end of the periods and it can be grazed outside of the period without breaching the EFA requirement, although crops normally grazed such as kale are not allowed (RPA, 2020).

EFA rules also stipulated that eligible crops must consist of at least one cereal and one non-cereal crop (three cereal and five non-cereal crops including a leguminous crop, lucerne, were listed for farmers to choose from). Each square-metre of catch or cover crop counts as 0.3 square-metres of EFA.

2. Basic Payment Scheme Cross Compliance

Cross Compliance is a pre-requisite for BPS payment and the Cross Compliance requirements are composed of ‘Statutory Management Requirements’ (SMRs) and Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAECs). Whilst not directly linked to catch crops, GAECs 4 and 5 are

  • GAEC 4: Providing minimum soil cover – protect soil by having a minimum soil cover. Cover crops and leguminous and nitrogen fixing crops (green manures) are deemed acceptable means of minimising soil erosion by providing a minimum soil cover.
  • GAEC 5: Minimising soil erosion - limit soil erosion by putting in place suitable practical measures.

3. Nitrate Vulnerable Zones

NVZs make up SMR1 of Cross Compliance and therefore regulation of the NVZs at farm level is through the BPS. A core requirement for NVZ compliance is the production and use of a nitrogen management plan using recognised Decision Support Tools such as the Nutrient Management Guide RB209. In calculating soil nitrogen supply farmers and their agronomists should increase the estimation of Soil Nitrogen Supply if there is reason to believe nitrogen residues are likely to be greater than normal and these residues will not be lost by leaching. (AHDB 2020). There is no requirement to have catch/cover crops.

4. Farming Rules for Water

In April 2018 defra introduced the Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018, known as the Farming Rules for Water. All land managers must follow these rules and so this expanded the area where manure, fertiliser and soil management is regulated to prevent runoff, erosion and leaching from the NVZ area to the whole of England. (Defra 2018b). Cover crops are specifically mentioned as a suggested means of preventing soil erosion. In this instance a cover crop is any crop with leaf cover that stops rain falling directly onto the soil.

5. Countryside Stewardship Scheme

This competitive Pillar 2 scheme rewards farmers for altering farming practice in order to improve local environmental quality. The scheme will pay £114/ha (~ €130/ha) for “winter cover crops”. Eligibility criteria state that land does not need to be within an NVZ, but must be cultivated and either vulnerable to nitrate leaching or drain directly into a watercourse and have been identified as being at risk of soil erosion or surface runoff. These areas must not also be claimed for as EFAs in the BPS (RPA, 2018).

6. Drinking Water Companies

Several large Drinking Water companies are working with farming communities to reduce diffuse agricultural pollution of drinking water resources and are using catch or cover crop incentives.

3. Farmers' current perceptions of motivations and challenges for implementing catch crops


Storr et al., (2019) show in a farm survey that catch and cover crops have been the focus of considerable interest amongst the farming community because of the potential benefits of these crops. These include observed benefits to soil structure, soil erosion control and water infiltration in addition to reductions in the use of chemical fertilisers, herbicide and fuel use. Growth in interest in Regenerative Agriculture and in improving ‘soil health’ is driving further interest in catch crops.


Storr et al., (2019) found that a major barrier to adoption has been the percieved lack of UK-specific research into both the costs and benefits of catch and cover crops as well as the best crop combinations for English climate and farm practice. It was also noted that the failure to manage catch crops in accordance with EFA regulations could result in a reduction in the total value of the BPS payment paid that year. Further, it is often seen to be easier to use other EFA options such as buffers and hedges to meet the EFA requirements.

Other points include financial (cost of seed versus lack of immediate benefit), lack of knowledge (farmers and agronomists), fear of penalties for non-compliance caused by poor weather conditions, and practicalities such as the difficulties with establishing and destroying the crops in wet winters, especially on heavy soils. For successful N capture the window for establishment is very narrow and then if it proves difficult to destroy the catch/cover crop in wet winters the yield of the following crop may be compromised. Loss of glyphosate as a management tool could reverse engagement rates with cover crops. (includes pers. comm. Alastair Leake, Jim Egan, John Williams, Andrew Wells, Anne Boghal).



For full references to papers quoted in this article see



Go To Top