Farmers who gathered in Timoleague in west Cork last Friday for an open day highlighting the area’s water quality trends have expressed both their pride at the catchment results and fears for the future of their farms.

Timoleague has been undergoing scrupulous monitoring since 2008, with water leaving the catchment monitored every 10 minutes, 365 days of the year as part of Teagasc’s Agricultural Catchments Programme (ACP).

Last year, the nitrates concentration in water in Timoleague dropped 9% to 4.9mg/l – the lowest recorded in the programme’s 13 years of testing. However, this 4.9mg/l result was still almost double the catchment’s nitrates water quality target of 2.6mg/l.

Despite the catchment falling short of the water quality targets set out by the programme, the nitrates concentration in the water leaving the catchment has been on a downward trend since 2019.

This west Cork area is representative of the most intensively farmed dairying areas in Ireland and it was evident that local dairy farmers were proud of this improving trend as they felt they played a major role in it.

Environmental terrorists

Peter Fleming, a local dairy farmer and chair of Barryroe Co-op, said that often farmers are portrayed as “environmental terrorists”.

“A lot of us here today are living in the catchment area and are farming in the catchment area and all we are asking for is a fair trial.

“Agriculture here is literally being put in front of the microscope,” he said.

“We’re delighted to now have science-based arguments because without science backing us up we’d be blown out of the water. What’s particularly important is that nitrates figures are going in the right direction.”

With the midterm review of the Nitrates Action Programme set to start this summer, Fleming is fearful of the impact a reduction in the derogation would have on farmers’ incomes.

“It’s being suggested now that the reduction in the derogation from 250kg/N/ha to 220kg/N/ha is a done deal. What that would mean for us here is that we’d have to carry 12% less animals than we carried last year and, if it goes back to 170kg/N/ha, it means 30% of what we historically farmed, we won’t be able to carry that stock.

“That’s going to have a huge impact on our incomes, on the co-op and on the community,” he said.

Another local dairy farmer, John Walsh, said that farmers in Timoleague had bought into the programme from the get-go.

“We would have a meeting every year and we all went to them.

“I think it’s important that people understand that we [farmers] don’t get up in the morning and decide we want to pollute the rivers – we are abiding by all the rules and have invested heavily in measures such as LESS and GPS fertiliser spreaders,” he said.

Results show that closed period makes sense

Results from the catchments programme have confirmed that the closed period for slurry makes sense, ACP specialist Edward Burgess said.

“If you have a dry period during the winter and you spread slurry, you won’t get utilisation from nitrogen when there isn’t crop growth,” he said, referring to the fact that most nitrogen would be lost to groundwater in winter months.

The timing of organic manures from a nitrogen point of view is very important, he added.

“Most of the nitrates leaving here happens during the winter months when water tables are high and we must time the application of fertiliser so that the nitrogen gets utilised by the growing crop,” he said.