INSPIRATION Marie Skłodoswka Curie Innovative Training Network

Start date: 01/11/16           End date: 31/10/19

Funder:  Marie Skłodoswka Curie Innovative Training Network

Principal Investigator: Dr Mark Healy (NUI Galway), Prof Owen Fenton (Teagasc)


Agricultural production in Europe has significantly damaged soil and water resources, ecosystem biodiversity, socio-economic well-being and contributed to climate change. Further intensification of production is expected, to ensure food security for population growth, but this must be sustainable to minimise future environmental impacts and negative externalities.Addressing this legacy and improving the quality and quantity of these critical natural resources for future use requires innovative sustainable management concepts, which must consider environmental, technical, social and economic factors. Decision-making frameworks and predictive tools must also be developed to implement sustainable agricultural practices and devise measures to mitigate impacts. These approaches must be developed from the farm- to catchment-scale and consider the cycling of nutrients and pollutants through the continuum of the atmosphere-soil-surface water-groundwater systems within European agricultural landscapes. Meeting these challenges requires a more integrated analysis represented in this project.

INSPIRATION (managing soil and groundwater impacts from agriculture for sustainable intensification) is a multidisciplinary European Training Network composed of 26 partners across 8 European countries, which will research fundamental science, natural processes, monitoring approaches, modelling and decision-making tools, innovative technology applications and management practices in the field of sustainable agriculture. The network will provide high-quality research training to young scientists, through 15 fully-funded Early Stage Researcher (PhD level) fellowships. The academic partners include leading research groups in this field. The non-academic and industry partners include all stakeholder interests (regulators, advisory bodies, water utilities, consulting firms, commercial R&D, technology vendors, SMEs and multinationals). The team of 15 fellows employed by INSPIRATION will research scientific topics which cover a wide range of important scientific, technical and management problems within the training themes described below. The project has an international advisory group and will undertake a comprehensive programme of knowledge transfer activities with other scientific networks and professional bodies in this field.

Research training themes

INSPIRATION will provide applied research training in the following areas:

  • Innovative methodologies for measuring contaminant fluxes in the subsurface

  • Predicting catchment-scale nutrient and contaminant fluxes between compartments

  • Restoring marginal land for agriculture using low cost amendments and bioremediation

  • Mitigation of soil and groundwater impacts from agriculture using mixed waste media

  • Sustainability of agricultural management strategies at the catchment-scale

High status waterbodies: managing and optimising nutrients

Start date: 1/12/13           End date: 30/11/18

Funder: DAFM/Teagasc

Principal Investigator: Dr Mark Healy (NUI Galway and Dr Karen Daly (Teagasc) (on Teagasc Walsh Fellow). Project investigators: Dr Karen Daly (Teagasc), Mary Ryan (Teagasc), Prof. Phil Jordan (UU), Dr Donnacha Doody (AFBI), Dr Mark Healy (NUI Galway)

Budget (€): 105,940


The overall objective of this research is to provide evidence-based strategies for nutrient management on farms in sensitive catchments.  The evidence will be derived from a research agenda examining the optimum use and management of nutrients as a Source and the hydrological Pathways controlling the delivery of this source to surface waters.  This Ph.D. research will focus on the predominant soils and current nutrient management in case-study catchments. The overall objective of the work is to optimise phosphorus (P) use on the predominant soil types in case study catchments so that farmers can continue to farm, yet, minimise the risk of P loss to waters. The case-study catchments selected for this work are likely to have a high proportion of peat soils and previous research on phosphorus in these soils has highlighted significant differences in their P chemistry compared to mineral soils, specifically,  low sorption capacity for phosphorus and poor P retention in these soils. These findings have implications for sustainable use of fertiliser and slurry in these areas.  There is a gap in our knowledge on the efficient use and management of nutrients on high organic matter soils, and this project will integrate agronomic experiments with rainfall simulator work to describe P assimilation and transport of applied nutrients to these soils.  The work in this study will focus on the predominant mineral and peat soils in the selected case-study catchments.


Conference papers:

Gonzalez-Jimenez, J.L., Healy, M.G., Roberts, W.M., Daly, K. 2016. Grass yield and phosphorus fractions in organic soils. Organic Phosphorus in the Environment: Solutions for Phosphorus Security Conference. Sept. 5-9, Lake District, England.

Use of soil water characteristic curve to determine solute travel times in sensitive catchments

Start date: 1/9/15           End date: 31/8/18

Funder: NUI Galway

Principal Investigator: Dr Bryan McCabe and Dr Mark Healy (NUI Galway), and Dr Owen Fenton (Teagasc)

Budget (€): c. €60,000


The soil water characteristic curve (SWCC) describes the volumetric water content of a soil at a given matric potential. The SWCC allows elucidation of solute transport timescales. Contexts in which the SWCC may be successfully used include the determination of ‘lag time’ between good agricultural practices and the determination of travel times of contaminated plumes arising from industrial practices. The proposed research work aims to use the centrifugal method to determine solute transport in different soil types and in different contexts.


Treatment of contaminated land (Marie Curie funded project)

Start date: 1/7/17           End date: 31/6/19

Funder: H2020-Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Individual Fellowship

Principal Investigators: Dr Mark Healy, Dr Florence Abram, Dr Alma Siggins

Budget (€): 187,866


Waste disposal and treatment is a major source of contamination of soils, surface and groundwater, and accounts for 35% of the 1.1 million contaminated sites in Europe. Leaching of the organic solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) into groundwater has been identified as a primary issue with unlined landfills, affecting up to 70% of leachates tested. Mainly used as a metal degreaser and dry-cleaning reagent, TCE is difficult to treat; current treatment methods, such as anaerobic digestion or air stripping, are ineffective and/or expensive. This project will investigate the use biochar, or other appropriate media, for treatment of TCE contaminated water via two technologies - permeable reactive interceptors (PRIs) and permeable contaminant retaining filter (PCRF) bags. This novel, low-cost solution will address the requirements of European Union (EU) legislation, including the Water Framework Directive (WFD).


Measurement and abatement of ammonia emissions from agriculture

Start date: 1/5/16           End date: 31/4/18

Funder: Teagasc

Principal Investigators: Dr Mark Healy (NUI Galway), Dr Gary Lanigan and Dr William Burchill (Teagasc), and Dr Barbara Amon (ATB, Germany)

Budget (€): 44,000


Nitrogen contained in slurry is an important source of N on Irish farms. However, a large proportion of this N can be lost from slurry via ammonia (NH3) gas emissions. These emissions are also detrimental to the environment. Agriculture contributes 98 % of the total NH3 emissions in Ireland. The cattle sector is by far the largest source of these emissions, comprising 72% of total emissions, with these emissions arising principally during animal housing and slurry storage (48%). This is important given that Irish livestock numbers are expected to grow post quote while EU national NH3 emissions targets are set to be more stringent up to 2030. Slurry storage emissions is one potential area were NH3 emissions can be reduced on Irish farms. However, little is known about the extent of slurry storage emissions in Ireland and the effectiveness of strategies to reduce NH3 emissions under Irish conditions. 

The objectives of this MSc will be to assess the effect of a number of potential strategies to reduce emissions from slurry storage. The effect of these strategies will be quantified using twelve concrete slurry storage tanks (volume of 1 m3) at a purpose built slurry storage facility.  A dynamic chamber approach will be used to estimate NH3 loss with gaseous emissions measured at the chamber inlets and outlets using a photoacoustic gas analyser and/or acid trapping. This will allow the simultaneous measurement of NH3, methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, and will allow assessment of NH3 loss and any positive or negative feedback these strategies have on greenhouse gas emissions.

Assessment of materials used in land drainage systems

Start date: 1/9/16           End date: 31/8/20

Funder: Teagasc

Principal Investigators: Dr Patrick Tuohy and Dr Owen Fenton (Teagasc), Dr Mark Healy (NUI Galway)

Budget (€): 88,000


The installation of land drainage systems is widespread in poorly drained regions of the country. The performance and working life of these drainage systems is dependent on the quality and suitability of the materials used in the field drains, and on keeping such drains well maintained. The range of materials available in terms of pipes and pipe envelopes does not easily fit into any standard classification, and many different combinations of both are in use. Stone aggregates, used as drain envelope, often have a geographical bias due to local geology and preference. The deposition of iron ochre in drainage pipes is also a major problem in iron-rich soils. Therefore, there is a huge variation in the performance and life-span of drainage systems.

This research aims to assess the performance, capacity and life-span of a range of drainage materials (pipe and envelope) in a range of soil types to establish best practice in material specification and design. There will be scope to assess the performance of some alternative envelope materials to offset the cost associated with stone aggregate and to investigate the nutrient attenuation capacity of stone media. Another element of the study will examine methods of reducing and the remediation of iron ochre deposition in drainage systems. The appraisal of drainage system material performance will inform farmers, contractors and other stakeholders involved in land drainage works of best practice in system design. A reduction in and the remediation of iron ochre deposition in drainage systems will improve drainage system performance and increase life-span. Such measures will ultimately improve the return on capital invested in land drainage works. If a cheaper alternative to stone aggregate is found to be appropriate, this has the potential to substantially reduce the cost of land drainage, thereby increasing the economic viability of land drainage works.

Optimizing dairy farmyard infrastructure for the management and treatment of soiled water

Title: Optimising dairy farmyard infrastructure for the management and treatment of soiled water

Start date: 01/10/18           End date: 31/09/22

Funder: Teagasc

Principal Investigator: Drs Mark Healy and Alma Siggins (NUI Galway), Dr Pat Tuohy , Dr Daire O' Huallachain and Prof Owen Fenton (Teagasc)

Budget (€): 88,000


The removal of milk quota restrictions, coupled with Food Wise 2025 targets, has heralded an increase in dairy herd sizes.

This expansion in dairy production has resulted in increased volumes of dairy soiled water (DSW). DSW is an effluent from

the milking parlour, collecting yards, roadways and other hard-standing areas, and consists of a dilute mixture of cow

faeces, urine, milk, detergents and sediment. Approximately 10,000 litres of DSW is produced per cow per year on Irish

dairy farms. DSW is potentially a major source of pollution; therefore measures are required for its management, storage,

treatment and disposal. Options for the treatment of DSW to reduce nutrient load and lessen the environmental impact have

not been employed to any significant extent. These include solid separation, nutrient attenuating amendments, filtration

systems and Integrated constructed wetlands (ICW). There is little guidance regarding the optimal design, construction,

operation and maintenance of suitable DSW treatment systems. This project will address gaps in knowledge on the status of

DSW, review current practices and attitudes towards its management and control, assess the capacity, effectiveness and

economic advantages of DSW treatment systems and outline a strategy to optimize their usefulness.





Biodiversity richness, water quality management and flood attenuation in natural and constructed wetlands

‌Start date: 1/2/14           End date: 31/1/18

Funder: EPA

Principal Investigator: Dr Mark Healy and Prof Mike Gormally (NUI Galway)

Budget (€): 73,500


The aim of this project is to compare natural and constructed wetlands in terms of biodiversity richness, water quality management and flood attenuation in the Western River Basin District. Natural wetlands, located in a protected area of the WRBD which does not achieve favourable conservation status and are of poor ecological status, will be monitored at the inlet and outlet over a 3-year study duration. These natural wetlands may be receiving either point discharges of municipal wastewater or diffuse discharges arising from overgrazing or chronic losses arising from over-application of organic and artificial fertilisers. The performance of artificial (constructed) wetlands receiving primary and secondary treated wastewater will also be examined. Comparison of both systems will be in terms of (1) wastewater purification (2) biodiversity and (3) nutrient uptake in vegetation (4) hydraulic loading and flood management.


Journal papers:

Mulkeen, C.J., Williams, C.D., Gormally, M.J., Healy, M.G. 2017. Seasonal patterns of metals and nutrients in Phragmites australis (Cav.) Trin. ex Steudel in a constructed wetlands in the west of Ireland. Ecological Engineering 107: 192 - 197.  Mulkeen et al. 2017_veg paper

Mulkeen, C.J., Gibson-Brabazon, S., Carlin, C., Williams, C.D., Healy, M.G., Mackey, P., Gormally, M.J. 2017. Habitat suitability assessment of constructed wetlands for the smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris [Linnaeus, 1758]): A comparison with natural wetlands. Ecological Engineering 106: 532-540.  Mulkeen et al. (habitat paper)

Conference papers:

Mulkeen, C.J., Gormally, M.J., Healy, M.G. 2017. The power of plants in constructed wetlands. 14th International Phytotechnologies Conference. September 25 - 29, Montreal, Canada.

Mulkeen, C.J., Healy, M.G., Gormally, M.J., Williams, C.D. 2014. Biodiversity richness and water quality in natural and constructed wetlands: what can Scimyzids tell us? 8th International Congress of Dipterology, Potsdam, Amsterdam, August, 2014.