1. The influence of land use and physico-chemical factors on stream macroinvertebrates was analysed at fifteen sites over a 2-year period in a single conifer-afforested catchment in Ireland, in an area subject to very low levels of atmospheric pollution. 2. Macroinvertebrate assemblages were classified using two-way indicator species analysis into five major groupings that were related to distance from headwaters and land use. Trends in macroinvertebrate community composition were related to changes in physico-chemical and biotic characteristics of the river and its tributaries using canonical correspondence analysis. 3. Local ecological factors (e.g. acid water, moss, shading or agricultural runoff), longitudinal trends in stream physico-chemistry (related to distance from headwaters, geology and land use) and season (related to life history patterns of the invertebrates) were the explanatory variables of spatio-temporal patterns in macroinvertebrate community composition in the catchment. 4. Spatial variation in macroinvertebrate density, taxon richness, diversity and evenness was investigated in relation to environmental characteristics of the study sites using Spearman's rank correlation, principal components analysis and stepwise multiple regression. Invertebrate density and richness increased with distance from the headwater and associated increases in pH, water hardness and nutrients. Macroinvertebrate density and richness also increased with increasing moss weight. Invertebrate diversity and evenness increased with shading of the channel. 5. The increase in macroinvertebrate density and richness and changes in community composition were particularly marked over a relatively short (1.2 km) distance in one tributary, and were concurrent with a rapid increase in stream pH of 1.7 units. 6. Although macroinvertebrate communities at conifer-afforested sites were not impoverished in the same way as those in some other parts of Europe, they differed from the communities found above and below the plantation. This appeared to be owing to the primary importance of local ecological factors and the effect that the longitudinal position of these forest sites within the river system had on their physicochemical and biotic nature.