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Informing agricultural policy through data

Edward Burgess, Specialist in the Agricultural Catchments Programme, provides an overview of the ACP, and the continuing importance of its research.

TResearch Autumn 2023

Lough Namachree, Corduff-Sreenty Catchment, Co Monaghan

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine funds the ACP to evaluate measures implemented in Ireland under its Nitrates Action Programme (NAP). These measures are reviewed and amended every four years. The Nitrates Directive forms an integral part of the overarching Water Framework Directive (WFD), which requires groundwater and all surface waters – lakes, rivers, transitional and coastal – to reach “good status” by 2027. It naturally follows that the ACP also informs policy on agricultural actions necessary to go towards meeting this goal. 

Understanding the implications

In Ireland there are currently approximately 7,000 farmers availing of a derogation to the Nitrates Directive’s stocking rate limit of 170kg N/ha. A further 6,000 are exporting manures to bring their farms under this limit.  These pasture-based farms include over two-thirds of the dairy herds in the country.  A mid-term review of the Nitrates Derogation is currently taking place in Ireland, against a backdrop of other European countries not continuing to avail of the increased stocking rate allowance.  Worryingly, recent national trends in water quality are not moving towards the WFD objectives. All of this has resulted in a greater focus on the ACP results than ever before.

Any possible future reductions to stocking rate limits will not only impact farms that exceed these limits, but also have consequences for other farms through the increased demand for land. A broad understanding of the socio-economic implications of any proposed regulatory changes across the whole agricultural sector is very important and will continue to grow as part of the ACP’s remit in addition to its bio-physical analysis.

Developing new models

While water quality issues facing agriculture are imminent, climate change and gaseous emission targets are arguably the largest concern in the long term. Results from five eddy covariance towers measuring carbon balances on different farm practices across the catchment locations will soon become available. A lot more data is set to come on board such as soil carbon and nitrogen analysis and ammonia monitoring. The programme is devoting considerable efforts to develop models for this data in order to assign more accurate emission calculations, reflecting mainstream farm practices in Ireland and scale up the results for the entire country.

All of this work could not happen without the support from over 300 farmers and land owners across all six catchments. This support is much appreciated within the programme and cannot be taken for granted given the changes in regulations that have been and continue to be implemented for environmental reasons. 

Pic Credit: Teagasc