On the 5th of October 2023, during the NEW Harmonica annual meeting, a field trip to the Neagh-Bann catchment was organized by the local host, Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute (AFBI).

The visit began on the shores of Lough Neagh, where nutrient excess is currently in the headlines and then travelled up into the Upper Bann catchment to look at the sources of some of the downstream nutrient issues, current mitigations strategies and BMPS, and meet some of the stakeholders.

Stop 1:  Lough Neagh

Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the UK and Ireland (385 km) is fed by 6 main rivers draining ~4,860 km2 of land, mainly within Northern Ireland. The lake has a long history of nutrient excess and is classed as hypereutrophic. Some decrease in nutrient inputs was achieved from the 1990s on, with upgrades to wastewater treatment and reductions in agricultural losses with the introduction of the Nitrates Action Programme. However, nitrogen and phosphorus remain issues and algal blooms in the lake during summer 2023 have been particularly problematic and enhanced by the changing climate and invasive species (zebra mussels) affecting water clarity.

An overview of the water quality issues was provided by Adam Mellor (Head of Oceanography and Limnology, AFBI). The challenges faced by the fishing industry and other business and stakeholders reliant on the Lough were covered by Kevin Gallagher (fisheries scientist at AFBI).  

Stop 2: Upper Bann Catchment Platform – Viewpoint

The research catchment has been a hub for AFBI water quality and agricultural research since 1990. Rachel Cassidy (catchment scientist at AFBI) gave an overview of the land use, farming practices and the multiple pressures influencing water quality in the catchment. She also introduced the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme which has been introduced to soil test every farmed field in Northern Ireland by 2026 in a response to low levels of agronomic nutrient management and strong links between soil P excess and water quality.

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Stop 3: UB22a monitoring station

The group visited a sub-catchment devoted to assessing the efficacy of water protection measures within agri-environmental schemes. In this catchment multiple measures, including fencing of watercourses to prevent cattle access,  riparian buffers, tree planting and re-positioning of livestock feed and water stations have been implemented. High resolution water quality monitoring is ongoing to assess changes at the catchment outlet.

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Stop 4: Farm participating in the Environmental Farming Scheme

A farm was visited in the upstream part of the catchment. The farmer, Richard Newell, who was an early adopter of the Best Management Practices (BMPs) funded under DAERA’s EFS agri-environmental scheme explained the measures that he takes to reduce nutrient leaching. Dominic McCann, farm environmental advisor (Rivers Trust Ireland: partners in the project) was also present.

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Stop 5: Nutrient Processing Opportunities

The trip stopped at a local AD plant (Thomas Cromie: agriAD). Brian Ervine (Policy Lead, Environmental Farming Branch, DAERA) and Chris Johnston (Renewable Energy, AFBI) provided an overview of opportunities for manure processing in NI.

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