Measures currently in place on farms to improve water quality are ineffective when it comes to improving nitrate run-off, An Taisce has said.

Speaking at the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, An Taisce’s head of advocacy Dr Elaine McGoff said water quality mitigation measures such as low emissions slurry spreading (LESS), protected urea and extended buffer zones are unsuccessful when it comes to nitrate.

“These measures, while valid and useful for phosphorus, ammonia and sediment, they are not particularly effective for reducing nitrate loss.

“It would not be a good use of time or resources if the main aim was to address nitrate loss to water,” she said.

Referencing a Waters for Life Project, which assessed the efficacy of different agricultural measures for nitrate, McGoff said: “Of note in this table, is the only highly ranked measure for nitrate mitigation is reducing the nitrate load, for example through reduction in livestock units/ha.”

McGoff also cited Teagasc modelling which said urine patches from cattle at pasture is responsible for up to 63% of nitrate leached on farms, while 29% of the nitrate loss was attributable to artificial fertiliser and 8% was attributable to slurry.

Pollutant of concern

“To put it simply, where nitrate is the pollutant of concern, compliance regarding slurry spreading and storage, while obviously desirable from a broader environmental perspective, it will have relatively limited benefits in catchments where we have a serious nitrogen problem.

“While we've made significant progress on this when it comes to measures for phosphate and for sediment, we are still failing to apply the correct measures when it comes to nitrate.

“There are many farmers willingly putting measures in place on their farms, but, frequently, they are not the measures designed to adequately address nitrate leaching.

“In many cases, what we're seeing is a nitrate problem with phosphate solutions,” she added.

Catchment-based approach

The ecologist advocated for a catchment-based approach to improve nitrate levels in waterbodies.

She added that in areas where nitrate levels are highest, measures above the recent derogation change would be needed.

“There will be some catchments where more dramatic measures will be needed compared with others.

“Where we've catchments requiring relatively modest nitrate decreases - for example, the Suir, the Blackwater, the Lee - then the decrease of the derogation limit from 250kg N/ha to 220kg N/ha, it may get us a fair way towards reducing the nitrate load needed.

“But when we've catchments with far higher levels of stream nitrate load - for example, in the Barrow and the Slaney, where we have 50% too much nitrogen going into those catchments - we will need far greater nitrogen load reductions, well over and above what will be provided by the drop from 250kg N/ha to 220kg N/ha,” she added.


Farmers need to be confident, McGoff said, that the measures they are implementing with regard to water quality will deliver the desired result.

“Irish farmers, in particular derogation farmers, currently are being asked to jump through a growing number of environmental hoops at their own cost.

“It's imperative that they can be confident the measures that they're putting in place will actually address the environmental problem at hand.

“I can tell you that based on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Teagasc science, I have little confidence that the existing measures will work sufficiently for nitrate,” she said.

McGoff added that farmers need honesty around what they are being asked to do with regards to water quality.

“The systemic failure by the State to implement a tailored, catchment-based approach based on the best of all available science is setting farmers up to fail and it's setting water quality up to fail too.

“Farmers more than anyone need honesty. It's their livelihoods on the line,” she said.