Recent extensive water quality surveys in Ireland revealed that diffuse phosphorus (P) pollution originating from agricultural land and transported by runoff and subsurface flows is the primary cause of the deterioration of surface water quality. P transport from land to water can be described by mathematical models that vary in modelling approach, complexity and scale (plot, field and catchment). Here, three mathematical models (soil water and analysis tools (SWAT), hydrological simulation program-FORTRAN (HSPF) and systeme hydrologique Europeen TRANsport (SHETRAN)/grid oriented phosphorus component (GOPC)) of diffuse P pollution have been tested in three Irish catchments to explore their suitability in Irish conditions for future use in implementing the European Water Framework Directive. After calibrating the models, their daily flows and total phosphorus (TP) exports are compared and assessed. The HSPF model was the best at simulating the mean daily discharge while SWAT gave the best calibration results for daily TP loads. Annual TP exports for the three models and for two empirical models were compared with measured data. No single model is consistently better in estimating the annual TP export for all three catchments. (C) 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.