Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute

Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute

AFBI has a fully catchment contained research farm providing an ideal platform for constructing, testing, quantifying the efficacy and effect of different runoff and pollution control systems including knowledge transfer. The methodologies are likely to consist of: SRC plantations with controlled automatic irrigation with data acquisition and riparian constructions for environmental protection. Using these innovations, AFBI will investigate options to reduce the entrance of polluting effluents into waters and help regain and maintain the water quality to achieve Water Framework Directive. AFBI has Broad ISO accredited analytical capability: pesticides, metals, nutrients, turbidity /sediments, dissolved/particulate/gaseous carbon, soil characteristics, Development and evaluation of measures for the control of diffuse pollution from agriculture and forestry, delivery of pilot studies and strong linkage with the farming and land based sector though linkages with DAERA and CAFRE.

AFBI: Partner Update

Despite the implementation of EU regulations controlling the use of fertilisers in agriculture, reserves of phosphorus (P) in soils continue to pose a threat to water quality. Mobilisation and transport of this legacy P from soil to surface waters has been highlighted as a probable and likely cause of many water bodies continuing to fail to achieve targets under the Water Framework Directive. Over recent decades, the CENIT grassland site (Fig 1) in AFBI Hillsborough has provided some insights into these concerns. From 2000 these grassland plots received P fertiliser amendments and from 2005 P applications ceased and subsequently P losses in runoff and drain flow from each plot were monitored closely until 2012. Unexpectedly, the concentration time series of losses across the plots were almost identical infact the control plot which received no P additions from 2000, and remained at Olsen P index 2 for the duration of the study, lost as much P as those plots receiving heavy applications of P until 2005.


The majority of agriculture in N.Ireland is grass-based with the production of dairy and beef cattle being prevalent and as such, methodologies to protect environmental water quality from agricultural runoff are of utmost importance if the region is to meet its goals under the EU Water Framework Directive. This is recognised in the recently published Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs “Sustainable Agricultural Land Management Strategy report and Executive summary” where there are recommendations for woody riparian strips, populated by plants such as willow which can withstand wet conditions and can be coppiced regularly for biomaterials (fuel or further processing). It is suggested that these strips, or bio-filtration blocks, will slow the flow of surface water, collect the sediment and absorb the Phosphorus before it enters the watercourse.


AFBI refurbished and planted riparian strips of SRC willow on 3 of 6 CENIT blocks in May 2016 and has been continuing with automatic overland and drainage water sampling since them. Within the cycle of SRC willow establishment are phases of land preparation, planting, establishment and cutback. Through these stages a number of issues have been dealt with including herbicide spray drift, insect and slug infestations and unexpected frosts. These let to the requirements for vigilance and some gapping up. Strong regrowth can now be seen (Fig 2). Even though there are some signs that both soluble and particulate loads are reducing as a result of the SRC willow intervention, these are not statistically significant at this stage however the plantations have been in their early days.

AFBI hosts UK Supergen Bioenergy Hub Conference


The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute has recently become a key partner in ‘The Supergen Bioenergy Hub Extension’.  The Hub brings together industry, academia and other stakeholders to focus on the research and knowledge challenges associated with increasing the contribution of bioenergy to meet strategic environmental targets within the UK.


The 2017 SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub recently held its Annual Assembly at AFBI Hillsborough where over 80 people attended from universities and research institutes across the UK.  Chris Johnston, Head of AFBI’s Agri-Environmental Technologies Programme, chaired the session on Resources which focused on biomass resources in Northern Ireland, as well as the potential and role of indigenous materials. AFBI’s role in the Hub is to ensure the impact from research activities in the areas of biomass production with environmental protection are fully harnessed to address the challenge of bioenergy utilisation. Project work in these areas is currently supported by funding from the EU (WaterPro & Catchment Care projects) and InvestNI through the Centre for Advanced Sustainable Energy (CASE) amongst others. Other topics discussed at the Annual Assembly included pre-treatment of feedstock, biomass conversion, energy vectors and energy systems. Delegates then toured AFBI’s excellent Research and Demonstration facilities including the Environment & Renewable Energy Centre, Anaerobic Digester and Nutrient Management Centre.

“Biomass resources are an essential part of the future circular bio-economy and our work here at AFBI is designed to integrate this production within our landscape in order to complement demands on water quality and sustainable waste water management” said Chris Johnston, Project leader at AFBI.

AFBI Pilot Site for intercepting and preventing diffuse agricultural Run-off.


The site was prepared and planted in June 2016. It has been developed and maintained continuously since then and cut Back early 2017 according to Best Practice. It has been regrowing during 2017 and now in 2018 we have a strong plantation developing. There has been some damage as a result of pest and chemical sprays and this has been repaired. The site is maintained for access of groups for KTT while control plots maintained for control reference site (pasture land management as for silage). Summer Growth 2018 is looking strong and vibrant. Water samples continue to be systematically collected and analysed in the lab as they become available. All water samples are continuing to be collected and analysed specifically for Total P and Total suspended solids; 516 drainage samples and 427 overland flow samples  have been collected.

The WaterPro Pilot site has been a focus of attention in a number of AFBI Hillsborough events which include AFBI Dairy Open day, EU grassland Federation, Supergen Bio-energy Hub, Northern Ireland Environment Agency Catchment Officers and several more.

Image 2 AFBI

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