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The WaterMARKE project is now completed.
View: Publications | Research Highlights

The “Grand Challenges” for food and agriculture in the 21st century include population growth, climate change, energy and water supply, all of which affect the potential of agriculture to provide an increasing secure supply of safe food. As a result, the “sustainable intensification” (SI) of agricultural production has become a priority issue for policymakers and international development agencies. In Ireland, the industry-developed strategies for the agri-food sector, Food Harvest 2020 (DAFF 2010) and Food Wise (DAFM 2015), set ambitious agricultural expansion targets for the dairy sector in  particular. This highlights the need for research and implementation science to facilitate sustainable agriculture. However, the pollution of surface and ground waters represents one of the main environmental problems facing agri-ecosystems. The EU Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC) (WFD) was established as an overarching approach to protect water bodies, however, despite the implementation of Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) regulations (S.I. No. 31 of 2014), which include a variety of measures designed to keep nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen on farmland, surface water quality has deteriorated in recent years. 

WaterMARKE an ambitious multi-actor research project co-funded by EPA and DAFM. The project connected the areas of biophysical science, socio-economics, behavioural psychology and implementation science in a unique and novel framework going further than most research projects. It crossed over between research and knowledge transfer to provide outputs that are valuable to the research communities in these areas, as well as producing a knowledge transfer template which tests and implements the learnings from the project. This project approached the issue of water quality from the scientific, institutional, behavioural and Knowledge Transfer perspectives. 

At a national scale, the project examined the roles and interactions of all the actors (institutions) involved in the agri-food production value chain, ascertain how the information flows and the structure of future programmes could be improved to facilitate further sustainable development and intensification of Irish agriculture.

Funded by: EPA Research & Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine 

See also: EPA Water Section

WaterMARKE Project Partners:


Dr. Mary Ryan - Project Coordinator - Rural Economy & Development Programme, Athenry, Co. Galway 
Dr. Karen Daly - Crops, Environment and Land Use Programme, Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford 
Prof. Owen Fenton - Crops, Environment and Land Use Programme, Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford 
Mr. Pat Murphy - Environment Knowledge Transfer (Head), Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford 
Mr. Eddie Burgess - Manager Agricultural Catchments Project (ACP), Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford 
Mr. Tim Hyde - Environment Knowledge Transfer Specialist, Ballinalsoe, Co Galway 
Thomas Moloney – WaterMARKE Bio-physical Post-doc – Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford 
Mr Noel Meehan, ASSAP Coordinator, Teagasc, Ballinasloe, Co. Galway 

National University of Ireland, Galway:

Prof. Cathal O’Donoghue - Dean of Arts, Social Sciences & Celtic Studies 
Dr. Denis O’Hora - School of Psychology 
Dr. Jenny McSharry - School of Psychology
Ms. Rossella DiDomenica – Psychology PhD student

University College Dublin:

Prof. Suzanne Kingston - Sutherland School of Law 

The Local Authority Waters and Communities Office:

Dr. Catherine Seale - Community Water Officer, Galway www.watersandcommunities.ie 

National Rural Network:

Dr. Maura Farrell - National University of Ireland, Galway www.nationalruralnetwork.ie

Scotland’s Rural College, Edinburgh (SRUC):

Prof. Andrew Barnes 

Project Publications

Cullen, P., Ryan, M., O'Donoghue, C., & Meehan, N. (2024). Characteristics of water quality mitigation measures that lead to greater adoption on farms. Journal of Environmental Management, 358, 120698.

Haydarov, D., O’Donoghue, C., Ryan, M, Zhang, C. 2024. Local natural capital influences on the spatial distribution of farm incomes. International Journal of Microsimulation 0(0), 1-23 

Moloney, T., Fenton, O., Daly, K. (2019). Ranking connectivity risk for phosphorus loss along agricultural drainage ditches, Science of the Total Environment (2019), doi: Ranking connectivity risk for phosphorus loss along agricultural drainage ditches, Science of the Total Environment (2019), doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv2019.134556

O'Donoghue, C., Ryan, M., Sologon, D., McLoughlin, N., Daxini, A., & Daly, K. (2024). A generalised farmer behaviour model for adoption of environmental measures. Journal of Cleaner Production, 450, 141631. 

O’Donoghue, C., Meng, Y., Ryan, M., Kilgarriff, P., Zhang, C., Bragina, P., Daly, K. 2022. Trends and Influential Factors of High Ecological Status Mobility in Irish Rivers. Science of the Total Environment, 816. 

O’Donoghue, C., Buckley, C., Chyzheuskaya, A., Green, S., Howley, P., Hynes, S., Ryan, M.  2021. The Spatial Impact of Economic Change on River Water Quality. Land Use Policy. 103, 105322 

vanLaren, L.R., Ryan, M., O’Donoghue, C., Kilcline, K., Ryan, C., Iliopoulos, C. (forthcoming). Improving Water Quality – the role of local actors and ecological factors in Mission-Oriented Agricultural Innovation Systems.  

Research Highlights

In Ireland, the primary pressures from agriculture are nutrient, sediment and pesticide losses to water. Nutrients such as Nitrogen (nitrates) can leach downward through light soils to groundwater, while Phosphorus and sediment can be lost through overland flow on heavy/peat soils. While the biological mechanisms of loss are complex and site specific, farm mitigation measures to break loss pathways are less complex. Often these involve the implementation of new practices, facilitated by advisory supports. Given this context, it is critical to undertake multi-disciplinary research to uncover the scientific, economic and behavioural barriers that hinder farmers from embracing pro-environmental water quality behaviours, policy-makers can shape future strategies more effectively.

WaterMARKE research addressed water quality improvement using a multi-disciplinary approach, incorporating:

  • a systems analysis of the actors and incentives that influence farm practices that impact on water quality,
  • spatial analysis of the impacts of rural activity on water quality
  • economic analyses of the factors impacting adoption of water quality mitigation measures by farmers
  • social and behavioural psychology studies to identify pro-environmental behavioural interventions.

The fundamental message of this paper is that improving a complex local environmental externality requires:

  1. local solutions and information and incentives
  2. taking an Innovation System perspective to the problem solution
  3. that changing the behaviour of farmers which may involve changing the behaviour of others upstream within the innovation system, requiring an examination of their incentives and motivations
  4. local information is required to facilitate local decisions.

Key findings from the research include:

  1. Collective knowledge exchange interventions such as discussion groups led by local ‘champion’ farmers and facilitated by advisers who provide technical knowledge on measures can capitalise on the strength of these behaviour drivers to increase adoption.
  2. Other farm/farm characteristics that drive adoption include: a. large farm size, previous participation in agri-environmental schemes. b. having a point source pollution issue, agricultural engagement with advisers, agricultural education. c. farmers are more accepting of measures that incur less cost and have a more immediate visible effect (e.g. drainage ditch remediation).
  3. Farmers with strong behavioural drivers to adopt specific measures are those who: a. have an awareness of a measure. b. perceive they have the capacity (knowledge) to undertake a measure. c. believe that other farmers/influences would approve of the measure. c. live in an area where others have implemented a measure.
  4. There is a need for enhanced supports for advisors, emphasising the necessity for prioritisation of pro-environmental water quality advice and the crucial role of trust in successful collaborations between advisors and farmers.
  5. At farmer and advisor level, there are barriers that represent both knowledge and technical challenges, along with administrative burdens that carry compliance and psychological costs.
  6. Key drivers of farmer behaviour change include: a. recognition of the important role of advisors across the Agricultural Innovation System in raising awareness of water quality issues with farmers. b. ASSAP measures with higher technical knowledge requirements result in greater advisor engagement, thus counter-balancing the knowledge challenge and highlighting the importance of localised and individualised support.
  7. The research shows that while farmers in general are positively motivated to improve water quality, they require supports in relation to knowledge and resources.
  8. Improving a complex local environmental externality requires localised activity data, supplemented by an improved understanding of nutrient loss pathways. This requires local information, such as the characterisation of risk undertaken by LAWPRO and the EPA Catchments Unit, in tandem with research and knowledge exchange, to provide the basis for the ‘right measure, right place’ approach to facilitating local solutions.
  9. The adoption of a ‘mission-oriented’ perspective spanning the innovation ‘system’ for water quality improvement has facilitated a range of collaborative initiatives, not least in relation to the adoption of water quality behaviours at farm level. This has involved changing behaviours across the innovation system of policy, regulatory, market and knowledge intermediary actors who all influence water quality at farm level.
    • Cost of measure implementation can be a negative behavioural driver. Measures with high implementation or transaction costs need to be differentially incentivised.
    • This study provided the evidence-based research to justify the need for a collaborative project to compensate farmers for measure implementation where the private cost it high, but where the social/environmental social benefit is high (see later ref to Water EIP).
  10. Spatial modelling highlights variation in place- and farm-specific implementation costs that must be accounted for in assessing appropriate measures for individual farms.
    • Additionally, farms with high opportunity costs for loss of land/productivity may be less likely to engage with mitigation measures.
  11. The socio-economic research also shows that it is feasible to use a generalised behavioural model that uses attributes of measures to generalise, thereby reducing the need to collect survey data on farmers’ behavioural preferences for every measure.



This project was funded under the EPA Research Programme 2014-2020. The EPA Research Programme is a Government of Ireland initiative funded by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.


Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the material contained in this webpage, complete accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the authors accept any responsibility whatsoever for loss or damage occasioned or claimed to have been occasioned, in part or in full, as a consequence of any person acting or refraining from acting, as a result of a matter contained in this webpage.