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.