Monday, 22 December 2014

Reflections on 2014

Early in the year we published the results of our work with Lancaster University on the potential resource protection benefits of field corner interception ponds (Journal of Environmental Management 135: 54-62).  Several years of data on blackbird nesting success and breeding abundance were transformed into a paper in Journal of Wildlife Management (78: 402-412), identifying implications for the conservation of this and other songbirds.  The first results from our School Farm demonstration catchment were published as a conference paper, and as an article in British Wildlife (25: 154-160), translating the concept of ecosystem services into a real practical example.

We have had more post-graduate students working with us than ever, each of them making a small but important contribution to our overall understanding of the integration of agricultural and environmental processes from field and farm to landscape scale.  Thanks to them all for their hard work.  Towards the end of the year, Dr Nicola Hinton joined our research team, providing us with the capacity to take forward our own soils research.

It has been a big year for the landscape scale Water Friendly Farming project.  Our partners at the Freshwater Habitats Trust pulled together the three years of baseline data to enable us to publish a report on the first phase of this project.  Even in this early stage, our findings have important implications for landscape scale aquatic wildlife conservation, and to our understanding of the relative importance of agricultural and domestic impacts on water quality.  We continue to draw on our data and experience in the project to develop our understanding of other issues such as soil and nutrient resource use efficiency from a farming perspective, and the implications of headwater management for reducing the risk of flooding downstream.  We are also investigating and addressing issues associated with the use of important crop protection products and drinking water supply.

We continue to apply the lessons learnt from our farm scale research at Loddington, and our landscape scale work in the Water Friendly Farming project, together with emerging results from research elsewhere, to inform practical management on farms in the wider river basin through the activities of the Welland Valley Partnership.  As in the Water Friendly Farming project, we aim to work with farmers to identify synergies between the economic and broad environmental sustainability of farm businesses, and the requirements to protect water.

In November, we formally became one of five national sites within the Sustainable Intensification Platform, a Defra-funded initiative to create a network of demonstration farms linked to landscape scale projects.  Our initial contribution at the farm scale is to gather baseline data and carry out some preliminary trials on crop establishment and cover crops.  We will also be exploring the relationship between sheep performance and the minerals available to them in ley swards.  Our research partners on this are NIAB TAG and Nottingham University (Sutton Bonington).  At the landscape scale, initial activity involves baseline surveys of farm businesses and exploring the potential for collaborative activities that strengthen the capacity of farm businesses to combine economic, environmental and production objectives.  We look forward to working with Exeter University on this project.

Thanks to all those who have worked with us in 2014.  Another successful year draws to a close, laying down foundations for even better things in 2015!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Hidden benefits of grass margins

We know from our previous research, and from other studies, that earthworms and other soil organisms are essential to soil functions that influence crop performance, water quality and flood control.  Our research has also shown that these organisms benefit from stable soil conditions associated with reduced tillage and no-tillage systems of crop establishment.  Soil life is enhanced by crop rotations in which the soil is not disturbed.

Desirable though this might sound, achieving these conditions is not so straight forward.  At some stage in the rotation, it might be necessary to plough for root crops, or because of wet conditions or for weed control for example.  The biological communities in the soil are rapidly destroyed and organic matter mineralised following cultivation.

Pasture provides a refuge for soil organisms such as earthworms but is not present or sufficiently well distributed on many farms.  On these farms, grass margins created under Environmental Stewardship schemes may provide an alternative refuge from which colonisation of arable soils can take place.

Worm numbers in grass margin and along transects through arable fields
MSc student, Stephen Jones recently completed his research into this issue in our School Farm catchment.  Worm numbers, biomass and species richness were all greater in grass margins than in the adjacent wheat or first year grass ley fields, with values for the first metre inside the field being consistently intermediate between those of the margin and main field.  There was a higher density of worms in fields next to Environmental Stewardship margins than in fields next to narrower cross-compliance margins.

These findings are important as they suggest that grass field margins, especially those created within Environmental Stewardship schemes, serve as a potential reservoir for recolonisation of arable fields when worm numbers become depleted by intensive cultivation.  The same may be true for other soil organisms.  Given the importance of earthworms and other soil organisms for soil function, including crop rooting capacity, nutrient cycling, water quality and flow control, the benefits of grass margins may be considerably greater than has formerly been assumed.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

A great new opportunity

We are to be part of a major new Defra initiative called the Sustainable Intensification Platform (SIP).  Our combination of farm and landscape scale study areas at and around Loddington will become one of a network of five such areas across England and Wales.  The decision follows a lengthy and highly competitive selection process and is testament to our pioneering research at a range of scales over the past two decades.  The study areas are not just individual sites, but incorporate several activities at the landscape scale.  In our case, this involves building on existing projects ranging from our own farm at Loddington, through our 'School Farm' demonstration catchment, to our Water Friendly Farming experiment in the headwaters of the Eye Brook and neighbouring streams, and to the river basin scale through the Welland Valley Partnership. Collaboration is key to our research.  This involves numerous people, and I would like to thank those who have supported this bid directly, and by contributing to our work over the years, enabling us to become one of the five national SIP study areas.
Our current study area (green circle) around the upper Eye Brook and Stonton Brook tributaries of the River Welland, with the Water Friendly Farming project in the headwaters, and our own farm at Loddington outlined in purple.
On our own farm at Loddington, Alastair Leake's role has been pivotal in facilitating the increasing emphasis on soil management, developing a new eco-build visitor centre to enable us to expand our activities, and translating research findings into policy.  John Szczur has brought exceptional knowledge of animal and plant identification and ecology to the project at Loddington for more than twenty years, as well as being at the core of our data collection at the landscape scale.  As Farm Manager, Phil Jarvis plays a central role at Loddington, juggling the needs of the farm business with those of our research trials, while Jim Egan plays a key role in disseminating information to the farming community nationwide through initiatives such as the Campaign for the Farmed Environment and the FWAG Association.

Outside Loddington, collaboration is key.  In the School Farm demonstration catchment, thanks to our neighbours who own most of the area, and especially to Gareth Owen on whose farm we will be concentrating our efforts on livestock and grassland research and demonstration with Nottingham University.

At the larger catchment scale, thanks to the numerous local people who participated in the Eye Brook Community Project in recent years, raising both awareness of agri-environmental issues locally, and the profile of the Eye Brook catchment nationally.  Thanks to Jeremy Biggs and the rest of the Freshwater Habitats Trust team for all their work on the Water Friendly Farming project over the past three years, incorporating the Eye Brook headwaters and two neighbouring catchments.  We look forward to developing this work further.

These various initiatives are nested within the upper Welland river basin and I would like to thank our partners in the Welland Valley Partnership, a collaboration of statutory agencies, local authorities, businesses, and NGOs that provides a forum for local knowledge exchange, extension of our research experience, and practical action on the ground.

Our research and associated demonstration activities are usually carried out as partnerships with other research organisations from across the country, including numerous co-supervised PhD and MSc students.  The universities of Cranfield, Lancaster, Reading, York, Nottingham, Leicester and others have all contributed to our research over the years, as have ADAS, CEH, Fera, Rothamsted Research, RSPB, BTO, NIAB TAG, Anglian Water, Syngenta, Michelin and Agrii SoilQuest.  This collaborative approach has enabled us to carry out a wide range of interdisciplinary research combining natural and social sciences.  We look forward to further collaborations with these and other partners through the SIP, especially and most immediately with Nottingham University, Exeter University and NIAB TAG.

Finally, thanks to the many farmers in our local area who have supported our research in many ways.  We intend that the SIP will provide real opportunities for their farm businesses through the research that we will carry out with their inspiration and participation.  An oxymoron to some, the concept of 'Sustainable Intensification' is in essence about optimisation - finding an optimal balance between food security for a growing global population, resource use efficiency, conserving biodiversity, improving water quality, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and other economic, environmental and social objectives for the agricultural environment.

Apart from being an affirmation of the value of our research activities to date, the SIP will provide additional financial and academic support to enable us to develop our approach further, and will strengthen the translation of our research findings into policy and practice.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Land use and water quality

MSc student, Alejandra Barrios Rivera (York University) has just completed her time with us, exploring the relationship between land use and water quality in the three headwater catchments of the Water Friendly Farming project.  Thanks to Julie Ewald and Nicholas Aebischer at the GWCT headquarters in Fordingbridge for providing support with GIS and stats.  The data Alejandra used (provided by the Freshwater Habitats Trust) were from the February and March 2013 sampling period and comprised 94 samples from stream sites and 51 from ditches.  This 'should' have been a wet time of year, enabling us to examine the impact of runoff from land, but as it happened, rainfall was 68% lower than usual and so the sampling period is more representative of lower flow conditions.
The three catchments of the Water Friendly Farming project, showing major land uses
Total nitrogen and total phosphorus concentrations in the three catchments were broadly similar.  For both total nitrogen and total phosphorus, upslope woodland area reduced concentrations in water.  For total nitrogen, the upslope arable area was associated with higher concentrations, while for total phosphorus it was the upslope urban area that was associated with higher values. Nitrogen tended to be present at higher concentrations high in the catchments, while for phosphorus, highest concentrations were towards the base of the catchment. Neither slope nor soil permeability influenced nutrient concentrations in water, as might be expected for the relatively low rainfall conditions at the time of sampling.

These findings reflect other results from the project and from our other local monitoring, revealing a high impact of local residents on water quality through discharges from septic tanks and small rural sewage treatment works.  Nitrogen was associated with arable land but as elevated concentrations were recorded high in the catchments where settlements tended to be located, there may also have been a contribution from domestic sources.  We will need to examine data collected under wetter conditions to understand better the agricultural contribution under higher flow conditions when we know that sediment and phosphorus delivery to water from arable land is higher.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

From wet to dry

As in June, rainfall in July this year was 76% the long term average and the month was also the eighth hottest in the past century. The hot dry June and July period follows on from one of the wettest winters. What has been going on in our fields over the past year?  Thanks to soil moisture sensors installed by SoilQuest at various locations in our School Farm demo catchment, we now have a good insight into this.

As the graph below illustrates, the soil was saturated from December to March which also happened to be a period in which there was visible soil erosion in some fields and when we recorded highest sediment loads in local streams. Soil moisture near the surface has declined since then, but at greater depths has remained remarkably constant.  That is until July when, even at 60cm depth, soil moisture dropped considerably.  This is the wheat crop's grain filling period when uptake of water by the plant influences final yield.

With a continuing trend for more frequent severe winter rainfall and higher summer temperatures with lower rainfall, we have some challenges ahead, both in terms of managing water quality, and in terms of food production.  Our research at and around Loddington will play a part in understanding how to rise to those challenges, most immediately by adapting to the inevitable changes, and in the slightly longer term, by helping to mitigate further change.
Relative values for rainfall (bars) and soil moisture at 20 cm depth (green), 40cm depth (black) and 60cm depth (blue) for a wheat field in the School Farm catchment at Loddington.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Sheep sharing

Gareth Owen describes his sward management
Nearly a third of the School Farm demo catchment at Loddington is in grass that is owned and managed by neighbouring farmer, Gareth Owen, and grazed by part of his flock of 1,400 breeding ewes. The area includes some permanent pasture as well as leys of various ages.  The shorter term leys that he uses form part of our arable rotation, providing an opportunity to build soil organic matter and fertility, and to control blackgrass. Gareth uses our soil nutrient maps and soil temperature and moisture sensors in the catchment to inform his nutrient management and parasite control programmes.

Liz Genever looks for soil compaction and Rhizobium nodules on clover

Parasite control, and sward management for optimum nutrition are key areas of research on the farm, carried out in collaboration with Nottingham University.  The farm is also used for demonstration purposes, such as the Eblex event held there earlier this week.  We look forward to working more closely with Gareth and our research partners at Nottingham to optimise both resource use efficiency and environmental benefits in the School Farm catchment.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Wildlife, food and climate change

Lesser Marsh Grasshopper
The Met Office reports that June was 1.2ÂșC warmer than the average for the 1981-2010 period and the ninth warmest for the past century.  Rainfall was 76% the average.  This reflects the long term trend for changes in our climate and is associated with changes in the distribution of some wildlife species which have been expanding their range north-westwards across the country. We have noticed the changes in central England at Loddington.  Since the Allerton Project started here in 1992, Lesser Marsh Grasshoppers colonised the farm in 1997 and Roesel's Bush Crickets in 2002.  Long-winged Conehead, Tree Bumblebee and White-legged Damselfly are amongst other insects to have appeared from the south-east.  At a time when much wildlife is in decline, the appearance of these species is welcome on the one hand, but on the other, their north-westwards range expansion carries a more sinister message.
Flowering wheat

While it is easy to dismiss the significance of changes in insect communities, we can expect climate change to have more direct effects on our own lives.  That does not just mean more frequent storms and floods, but also threats to our food supply.  Combined with the widespread adoption of heavy machinery, winter rain contributes to water-logged land which causes erosion of soil from fields, and lower yielding crops.  In summer, high temperature during flowering reduces the number of grains per ear of wheat, while poor access to water during grain filling, caused by compacted ground and low rainfall, reduces the size of those grains. Food production in north-west Europe is expected to be affected less than in other parts of the World, putting increasing pressure on the UK and neighbouring countries to feed the global population.  That has serious implications for wildlife associated with farmland, and for us.  As well as continuing to monitor wildlife, we are seeking better ways of managing our crops so as to meet the challenges that climate change presents us all.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Students' union

Research in action in the Allerton Project lab at Loddington
Loddington is a hive of activity as MSc students from universities across the country carry out their fieldwork.  Richard Stone (Southampton University) is mapping ecosystem services for our farm-scale 'School Farm' demo catchment.  Michael Dorr (Derby University) is investigating sediment movement in the catchment.  Stephen Jones (Nottingham University) is investigating in-field earthworm distribution, while Tichaona Sanangura (Cranfield University) is examining a range of soil properties in our arable fields.  Alejandra Barrios Rivera (York University) is using GIS at the landscape scale to explore the relationship between land use and water quality in the Water Friendly Farming project.  Tom Keighley (Nottingham University) is assessing sedimentation in riffles along the full lengths of the Eye Brook and Stonton Brook tributaries of the Welland.  This work will link with Rosaline Nicholls's (Leicester University) study of stream ecology along the same streams.

In combination, these student projects reflect our current research focus, integrating the study of field scale soil ecology and other properties with landscape scale processes influencing water, both as a resource, and as a habitat.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Advice by the spadeful

At the same time as pressure to improve water quality to meet Water Framework Directive targets, the risk of declining crop yields associated with soil compaction, nutrient imbalance and competition from grass weeds highlights the common ground between environmental and economic objectives for farm businesses.  We are working with farmers in the Water Friendly Farming project catchments to provide them with information and advice that they can combine with their own experience to improve soil and nutrient management to benefit both the bottom line, and the water quality at the bottom of the catchment.  There is also much that we can learn from the farmers involved. There is no quick easy fix, but the process is now underway, and we will be sharing the results with the rest of the local farming community through our events at Loddington and through the Welland Valley Partnership.  More widely, our experience will feed into advice provision across the country, through our links with the FWAG Association and LEAF for example.

A spadeful of soil is a tangible focus for discussion about soil management
The issues that are identified on our local farms are typical of those found on others across the country and include excessive runoff, surface capping and sub-surface soil pans associated with previous tillage operations.  Anaerobic conditions associated with compaction restrict biological activity that is essential for breakdown of buried crop residues, and for the development of the soil microbial communities that improve infiltration and availability of nutrients and water to plants.  In addressing these issues, local farmers can benefit from the results of our own research carried out at Loddington by Allerton Project staff and our research partners, combined with the considerable experience from other sites that is brought to us by independent specialists.

Low (left) and high (right) P fields on WFF project farms
Soil nutrient maps created by Soilquest provide a clear indication of variability of nutrients across fields and help to guide efficient use of valuable inputs such as Phosphorus.  Soil pH and other nutrients such as Magnesium also influence the availability of Phosphorus to crops and maps of these will further inform management decisions that optimise crop performance in the field while minimising loss of nutrients to watercourses.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Multiple wetlands and solitary bees

While the main focus of the Water Friendly Farming project is combining improved food production with improved water quality and control, we are also surveying birds and pollinating insects at some sites.  There is increasing evidence that wild bees can increase yields of our main break crops, and our own research at Loddington has revealed similar benefits in terms of fruit production.  Our surveys in the School Farm demonstration catchment at Loddington have illustrated the association of solitary bees with hedges and woodland edges, while bumblebees were recorded mainly in wild bird seed mixtures and grass margins that contained flowering plants.
Wet mud being gathered for nest building                                 © C Stoate

Across a 2,000 ha landscape within the Water Friendly Farming project, we have created a series of field edge wetlands with grass and wild flower mixtures sown on their banks.  We might expect this combination of woody hedgerow habitat with sheltered banks of flowering plants, open water and wet mud, to provide nesting material and sites as well as foraging habitats for many of the pollinating insects that support both naturally occurring and commercially grown plants.  Survey work currently being carried out by Ecologist, John Szczur will reveal to what extent this is the case.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

We are not special

We now have three years of baseline data on aquatic biodiversity and nutrient concentrations from about 250 sites across the three study catchments of the Water Friendly Farming project.  This is an exceptionally high resolution for a landscape scale project and complements the continuous monitoring of water quality at the base of each of the three catchments - an unprecedented combination of data for lowland England.  The number of aquatic plant species is highest in ponds, intermediate in streams and lowest in ditches.  Nutrient concentrations are most variable in ponds which include high quality habitats in small catchments.

Aquatic plant species richness in ditches, streams and ponds
This distribution of aquatic biodiversity in the WFF landscape closely resembles that seen in all other landscape studies so far undertaken in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, by the Freshwater Habitats Trust.  Our 30km2 study area consists of a mixture of arable and livestock farms on Grade 2/3 land.  Farms range in size and are variably owner-occupied, tenanted and farmed under contract farming agreements.  Both in terms of the farm businesses, and in terms of landscape ecology, the area is therefore representative of a large proportion of lowland England.  This ensures that results of the project will have wide application as they emerge over the next few years.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Could more aquatic wildlife mean more food for us?

I make the case in a conference paper published this week* that aquatic invertebrates can be used to guide land management to improve crop yields. Driven by the demands of the Water Framework Directive for cleaner water in our streams and rivers, it is very much the vogue to use aquatic invertebrate communities as indicators of the negative effects of food production on freshwater as many species are affected by the loss of soil and nutrients from farmland to water.  But the loss of soil and nutrients from farmland to water does little for food production either!  Aquatic invertebrate communities can be considered as indicators of how well agricultural soils are being managed.
Aquatic invertebrates in a mixed arable/grass and an all-grass catchment
In our largely arable School Farm demo catchment, mayflies were present in just a third of the numbers present in a nearby low input pasture catchment stream, while caddis fly numbers were only 18% of those present in the comparison catchment. Stone flies were totally absent from the School Farm stream, whereas they exceeded caddis fly numbers in the pasture stream. It is probably unrealistic to expect invertebrate communities associated with arable land to be as rich as those associated with stable soils under low input pasture.  However, we expect our current improvements in soil management within the School Farm catchment to improve soil function, and that means benefits both to food production and to aquatic wildlife.

*Stoate, C. 2014. Delivering integrated farm management in practice: understanding ecosystem services. Delivering multiple benefits from our land: sustainable development in practice. SRUC/SEPA Biennial Conference, Edinburgh, 15-16 April 2014.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Water Friendly Farming project update

There has been considerable recent activity within our landscape scale experiment in partnership with the local farming community in the upper Welland river basin. Much of the work of putting in place mitigation measures across the upper Eye Brook and Stonton Brook catchments has now been completed, although there is still some work to do.  Ditch dams, flood water ponds and field drain interceptor ponds are all located outside the cropped area and are designed to trap sediment and nutrients once they have left fields. Although the main activities are with the arable farmers, some have involved improvements to livestock systems. Some initial surveys of arable soil structure and mapping soil nutrients have resulted in targeted advice to farmers to prevent soil and nutrients leaving fields in the first place and we hope to develop this work further in the coming year. We are aiming to improve the efficiency of food production, while at the same time achieving environmental benefits. Much of the practical work is informed by the research carried out with our research partners on our own nearby farm at Loddington.

The Water Friendly Farming project builds on previous activities in the Eye Brook catchment, not least the Eye Brook Community project in which researchers, farmers and other local residents improved their shared understanding of how the catchment works to deliver both food and environmental benefits. The annual newsletter, 'The Eye' was a key mechanism for sharing information locally and we have recently published another issue of The Eye in order to improve awareness of the Water Friendly Farming project amongst local residents.  You can download a copy here. As they emerge from the project, results are being shared with the national farming community and others through the ongoing programme of events held in our eco-build visitor centre at Loddington, and through our advisory activities elsewhere, including our established links with the FWAG Association across the country.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

All you need to know about biobeds

This was the title for the final workshop of this series of three which has taken place at the Allerton Project, organised by Jim Egan, with funding from the Welland Valley Partnership and support from The Campaign for the Farmed Environment. The workshop was led by Andrew Down, a Catchment Sensitive Farming Officer with Natural England and there was a visit to the Allerton Project's own biobed which Farm Manager Phil Jarvis and team are currently building – see some pictures on his blog.

The most important step is planning what you are going to do. Looking at the overall spaying/farm yard operation is a great starting point as many farmers could use this as an opportunity to make the farmyard more efficient as well as more environmentally friendly. 
Visiting farmers discuss the Allerton Project biobed
The first decision is whether you want a biobed or a bio-filter.  If you have a covered sprayer filling area you should be looking at a bio-filter, and if you are working on an outdoor operating system then it’s a biobed that you need.  We discussed everything from permits and exemptions through to construction and costs.

If most farmers took a long hard look at how they currently operate they’ll see there are a range of environmental risks and a number of inefficient steps in the whole spraying operation.  An investment in new infrastructure might be the best way forward and hopefully this workshop helped to give some ideas as to where to start.

Forty percent of pesticides in watercourses comes from farmyards with between 60 and 100% of that coming from foil seals and tractor washings! Andrew also reminded us all that for a single pesticide the limit in drinking water is 1 part per billion which equates to 1 drop in an Olympic sized swimming pool, or just one slug pellet in a 100 metre length of ditch.  If we want to keep the chemicals we have, better managed sprayer filling systems and a biobed or bio-filter are worth considering.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Improved soil management giving improved yields

Another successful workshop for Welland farmers today, supported by the Welland Valley Partnership and the Campaign for the Farmed Environment.  Here's a guest blog from the Allerton Project's Jim Egan who organised the event - 


The line-up of speakers was very varied and I thought I’d share some of the key points I picked up from each one. Allerton Project Director, Alastair Leake kicked the day off by looking at why soil organic matter is important. Soil organic matter:
·         Improves seedbed quality
·         Increases water infiltration
·         Increases Water Holding Capacity
·         Helps keep nutrients available
·         Produces simple nutrients from complex organic molecules
·         Fuels the Carbon Cycle

He also talked about how worms can be a farmer's best friend!

Next up was Ron Stobart who is the Head of Agronomy Knowledge Transfer and Training at NIAB TAG. Ron was given the task of talking about rotations and how this can influence soil organic matter.  It was great to hear about some long term research and gain some new knowledge. Ron reinforced the messages Alastair had delivered. Soil organic matter influences physical, chemical and biological properties including:
·         Improved drainage/workability of heavy soil
·         Improved available water capacity of light soil
·         Improved stability of soil crumbs
·         Assists root exploration
·         Improved nutrient holding capacity
·         Releases nitrogen to plants
·         Encourages earthworms, soil fauna - those worms again!


'Why Grow Cover Crops?' was the topic that Phil Sumption from the Organic Research Centre was given. Apart from re affirming my belief that there is a lot that conventional and organic farmers can learn from each other, here are my key points from Phil’s presentation. Consider growing cover crops to:
·         add nitrogen to the system by fixation
·         prevent leaching
·         modify the availability of nitrogen and other nutrients
·         build soil organic matter and encourage microbial activity
·         prevent soil erosion
·         help with pest, disease and weed control

Last of the formal speakers was Matt Taylor from ADAS who tackled 'Recycling of Organic Materials to Land'. Again lots to learn but my key take home messages were: 
  • Know what you are applying - use laboratory analysis
  • Apply accurately and evenly - if you can use precision application machinery
  • Make best use of nutrients - NPKS costs money but can boost yield which gives a better financial return
After lunch our guests went out with Allerton Project Farm Manager, Phil Jarvis to look at what we are doing here at the Allerton Project.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The early bird ... loses its eggs

Early nests are more susceptible to predation
The nesting season is underway for bird species such as blackbird and song thrush, but their nests are poorly concealed as the leaves are not yet on the trees and hedges. Analysis of our 11-year dataset by Patrick White previously revealed that early season blackbird nests were more susceptible to predation by crows and magpies than nests later in the season, although there was no such effect when nest predators were controlled as part of a game management system (1).  That work also revealed higher fledging rates and population increases during the period of low nest predation.

In another paper just published on-line (2), Patrick White's further analysis of nest data collected over the same period by John Szczur reveals that, as well as blackbird and song thrush, nest survival of dunnock, chaffinch and yellowhammer also benefited from the removal of nest predators during the breeding season as part of systematic game management. For whitethroat, the sixth species studied, there was no such effect.  However, when less intensive control of crows and magpies only was carried out, only blackbird showed higher nest survival.

1. White, P.J., Stoate, C., Szczur, J. & Norris, K. (2008) Investigating the effects of predator removal and habitat management on nesting success and breeding population size of a farmland passerine: a case study. Ibis 150 (Suppl.1), 178-190.
2. White, P., Stoate, C., Szczur, J. & Norris, K. (2014) Predator reduction with habitat management can improve songbird nest success. Journal of Wildlife Management DOI: 10.1002/jwmg.687

Monday, 17 March 2014

Welland farmers benefit from research

A workshop held at Loddington on Friday enabled sixteen farmers from the Welland river basin to benefit from research carried out by the Allerton Project and others into the control of blackgrass.  Thanks to Jim Egan for organising the event and to Stephen Moss from Rothamsted and Mark Hemmant from Agrovista for sharing their very considerable research experience with us.

Blackgrass is arguably the most problematic weed affecting farmers' ability to produce food from arable land.  Few herbicides are available to control this competitive grass, and some of those that are available are persistent in water and cause considerable problems for drinking water supply.  Farmers attending the workshop were told of the importance of these herbicides in the fight against blackgrass, but also of a series of complementary measures that can be taken to control the weed.

The Welland Valley Partnership supported this workshop as part of its programme of activities to improve water quality in the River Welland, while also helping farmers to use the resources available to them as efficiently as possible.  A workshop on 19 March will address the subject of soil organic matter management, and another on 25 March will introduce visitors to the Allerton Project's new biobed.

Allerton Project Director, Dr Alastair Leake discusses the role of spring beans in blackgrass control with Welland farmers attending the recent workshop



Saturday, 8 March 2014

Do constructed wetlands work?

Our research with Lancaster University on the potential of field corner constructed wetlands to reduce sediment and nutrient movement to water has just been published*. Three designs were tested across three soil types, including sandy and silty soils in Cumbria, and our clay soils at Loddington.  Although rainfall inevitably had a major influence on sediment accumulation, wit more rain in Cumbria than at Loddington during the study period, the influence of soil type was considerable.  Sandy soils accumulated 0.8 tonnes per hectare of catchment per year, silty soils 0.4 tonnes, and Loddington clay, 0.03 tonnes.  Phosphorus concentration was highest in sediment with low particle size but this had little influence on the effect of soil type on overall accumulation of phosphorus.

Sediment accumulation behind a WFF project ditch dam
So does this mean field edge wetlands have limited potential in catchments with clay soils such as those of the Water Friendly Farming project?  It does seem that wetlands in sandy and silty soils are likely to capture sediment more rapidly, but we know from previous work at Loddington that simple ditch dams can be very effective at both accumulating sediment and providing biodiversity benefits.  Similar structures created in the Water Friendly Farming project have also already proved to be effective at some sites.  The current study involved only three wetlands, and as we report in the paper, siting of such wetlands is critical to their performance.  In terms of practical application, flexibility in design is also critical so that the structure can be adapted to site specific constraints and opportunities to optimise sediment and nutrient capture.  Finally, wetlands that fail to capture fine particulate matter associated with clay soils, and those on sandy or silty soils that fill up quickly, both indicate that appropriate soil management in the field is the most fundamental approach to reducing soil and nutrient loss to water.

*Ockenden, M., Deasy, C., Quinton, J., Surrindge, B. & Stoate, C. 2014. Keeping agricultural soil out of rivers: Evidence of sediment and nutrient accumulation within field wetlands in the UK.  Journal of Environmental Management 135: 54-62.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Ecosystem services in practice

If you are visiting this page as a result of publicity associated with my recent article in British Wildlife*, please see my posts for 26 July and 19 April for some background to the project.  Here are a couple of other examples from the article:

Food production and water quality

Sediment concentrations in stream water during periods of heavy rain increase with distance down the catchment with increasing arable influence, lowest concentrations being present at the head of the catchment in the ancient semi-natural woodland, with only a small increase as the stream passes through pasture.  This is consistent with our previous studies comparing the influence of different land cover types on water quality - production of food from arable land has a greater impact on water quality (and ecology and flow) than does food production from pasture. See the post for 26 July for the role of wildlife in addressing this issue.  At base flow in summer, soluble reactive phosphorus concentrations are also low in the upper part of the catchment but increase considerably where the stream passes rural houses because of the influence of septic tanks.  The phosphorus concentration is lower at the base of the catchment as dilution and biological activity improve water quality lower down the stream.

Turbidity (reflecting sediment concentrations) during winter rain, and soluble reactive phosphorus during base flow in summer, at six sampling points along the School Farm stream.

Non-crop habitats as sources of crop pest predators

Carabid beetles captured using emergence traps in wood edge and hedge
Non-crop habitats may benefit food production by producing insects that pollinate crops or control crop pests.  Use of conventional pitfall traps has shown that woodland edges support higher numbers of carabid  (important crop pest predators) than hedges do.  We recently used emergence traps to determine whether these two habitats are actually producing these insects through the emergence of adult beetles from the soil and found this to be the case.  We also found that the species composition of the beetle communities in the two habitats was different.  We know from previous research that carabid beetles reduce aphid numbers at least 80 metres into adjacent crops, so both woodland and hedge habitats are therefore contributing to crop pest control in slightly different ways.

Further examples of interactions between wildlife and food production can be found in the original article and others will appear on this blog in due course.

*Stoate, C. 2014.  Wildlife has its uses – managing farmland for ecosystem services. British Wildlife 25: 154-160