Irish farmers are better placed than most of their European counterparts to adopt long-term measures to improve water quality.

This is because of the high level of owned, farmed land in Ireland, Swedish researcher Dennis Collentine told the fourth Agricultural Catchments Programme (ACP) conference last Wednesday. Farmers who own land are more likely to carry out long-term actions, such as buffer zones and tree planting, and substantial changes to land use, such as rewetting. Ireland has one of the highest levels of farmed land ownership, with only 18% leased or rented, compared to almost 50% in France and Germany.

“Reductions in agricultural return can lead to lower economic returns for the farmer, but not necessarily the landowner,” he stated.

Teagasc’s Pat Murphy explained the impact of two broader programmes that use the same concept of close advisor/farmer relationships as the catchments programme. The Local Authorities Water Programme (LAWPRO) and the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP) now encompass 192 catchments between them, with thousands of farmers engaging with the high level of advice and support. Thirteen local authorities are now involved in LAWPRO, which has a ground-up approach of engagement with farmers and communities in identified vulnerable catchments. The €60m funding for farmers in ASSAP now provides the financial support, identified by an external review as needed “to enable farmers implement agreed actions recommended by ASSAP advisers”.

Dairy farmers are successfully utilising innovation to improve nitrogen use efficiency, which improves both water quality and farmer incomes, Michele McCormack told the conference. In particular, the wide adoption of low-emission slurry spreading with a pattern of earlier slurry application has driven up nutrient efficiency.

Wednesday morning’s field trips visited two of the six catchments in the ACP, both in Wexford. The Ballycanew catchment encompasses heavy marl land, known as macamore soil, which is very poor-draining.

The Castledockrell catchment, only 20km away, is free-draining, with a high degree of tillage farming. Conference attendees from all over Europe heard on-farm and at the conference, from some of the 300 farmers who farm on the six catchments, and the very different challenges presented by farming on various soil types.