coastal farmland       Issue-CAP3-byOrHiltch


Two thirds of Ireland’s land is in agricultural use. Certain agricultural practices result in water pollution due to the run-off of fertilisers, slurry, silt, chemicals and pathogens into rivers, streams and bays. This in turn leads to a reduction in water quality and the health of the water environment.

Eutrophication resulting from agriculture is responsible of much of the moderate water pollution in Ireland. This is caused both by the contamination of water with animal slurry, which has a high level of nutrients, and by inorganic nitrate and phosphate fertilisers. This kind of pollution promotes the growth of algae and bacteria at unnaturally rapid rates, stripping the water of oxygen. The spread of animal slurry due to inclement weather or close proximity to water bodies, the over-application of fertilisers on grasslands, and poor management of farmyard wastes are the main offenders.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Eutrophication of rivers and lakes due to phosphorous losses from agriculture continues to be the most critical impact of Irish agriculture on water quality”, and over 70% of phosphates reaching inland waters emanate from agricultural sources. The EPA also states in the report on biological water quality  (for the 2007-2009 period)[1] that agricultural pollution was responsible for 39% of moderate pollution, attributing this to “diffuse losses including farmyard losses, siltation due to bank erosion and cattle access to streams, phosphorus loss from riparian areas and nitrate losses from tillage land.”

Many riverside, lakeside and coastal wetlands in Ireland have been damaged or destroyed by activities such as field drainage (linked to intensive agriculture) and land reclamation for agricultural purposes. The resulting changes can impact negatively on a wide range of aquatic species and can also lead to the successful encroachment of invasive plant and animal species.

The pressure that agriculture exerts on the aquatic environment is set to increase in the coming years. The EPA has established that the projected 50% increase in dairy production under Food Harvest 2020 will pose a ‘significant threat’ to water quality,[2] and the 2013 South East Integrated Water Quality Report  states that “The proposed expansion of the agriculture sector, as detailed in Food Harvest 2020 … will bring large increases in farm outputs … and the threat of additional diffuse environmental pressures needs to be addressed’.

The current legislative framework is inadequate to address the wide range of agriculture-derived pressures on water in a number of ways: 1) There are legislative gaps where there are no specific regulations in place to control certain activities, e.g. animal access; 2) where regulations are in place, the provisions may not be strict enough to provide the required protection, e.g. the Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) Regulations ; 3) the implementation and enforcement of legislation is inadequate to ensure compliance.

Agricultural pollution must be dealt with as a matter of urgency if we are to meet the targets of the Water Framework Directive. There is no doubt that one of the most challenging and insidious threats to water quality is eutrophication from diffuse sources, in particular from agriculture and, to a lesser extent, from forestry and septic tanks. These challenges are not insurmountable, however. The Water Framework Directive requires them to be addressed and resolved as soon as possible. So far, the government’s vehicle for action, the 2009-2015 River Basin Management Plans, have failed to do this. SWAN will be watching the development of the 2016-2021 Plans closely to ensure that they contain the measures needed to dramatically cut water pollution from agriculture and to support farmers in doing this.

For further information, including supporting literature and SWAN recommendations on how to address agricultural pressures on water, please see the SWAN commissioned research report on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP): Interactions with the Water Framework Directive and implications for the status of Irish Waters.



[1] EPA (2010) ‘Water Quality in Ireland 2007-2009’. EPA, Wexford

[2] EPA (2012) Ireland’s Environment- An Assessment. Environmental Protection Agency, Wexford.