Weighted risk assessment of critical source areas for soil phosphorus losses through surface runoff mechanisms

Emma Hayes*, Suzanne Higgins, Josie Geris, Gillian Nicholl, Donal Mullan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
5 Downloads (Pure)


In intensive livestock areas, soils commonly contain elevated nutrients above the agronomic optimum which increases the risk of nutrient losses and contributing to poor ecological status waterbodies. Large within-field variability in soil nutrient content exists, and at-risk phosphorus (P) hotspots are rarely quantified due to sub-optimal soil sampling regimes. This study aims to address this issue by developing and evaluating an improved classification of P transfer risk at a sub-field scale through a weighted risk assessment model that combines gridded soil sampling data with modelled in-field surface runoff pathways. Within-field soil P variability was quantified at six field-scale sites in Northern Ireland using two different sampling techniques; traditional bulked field soil sampling (i.e. bulk analysis of W pattern sampling) and gridded sampling (at 35 m resolution) alongside interpolation. Results show that traditional bulked sampling failed to account for the sub-field scale spatial variability in soil P content. This may contribute to the poor chemical and ecological status of surface waters by frequently under-predicting soil nutrient content, and failing to identify potential contributing sources of soil P losses. In contrast, higher intensity gridded sampling and interpolation revealed wide in-field spatial variability in soil P content, facilitating the identification of contributing sources of P losses to poor water quality and aiding in the characterisation of risk for nutrient losses to waterways. Hydrological modelling of in-field runoff pathways indicated several P sources potentially contributing to runoff-based P losses. Our weighted risk assessment model was successful in identifying P hotspots and transfer potential to water courses, illustrating that a similar approach could be applied anywhere in the world where excess P poses a problem for water quality. Model validation took place using instream water quality sampling data, which showed that higher risk weighting model results correlated to poorer water quality conditions. This methodology could be a useful management tool to help countries meet their national water quality targets.

Original languageEnglish
Article number107027
Number of pages12
Early online date26 Feb 2023
Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2023

Bibliographical note

This work was supported by the NERC QUADRAT DTP [grant number 2280708].

Data Availability Statement

No data is publicly available due to anonymity granted to landowners participating in this research.


  • Gridded soil sampling
  • Soil phosphorus
  • Ordinary kriging
  • Hydrological modelling
  • Water quality


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