Monday, 23 December 2013

Reflections on 2013

As 2013 draws to a close it is time to review another year of research and associated dissemination and demonstration activities at and around Loddington, and the first year of this blog.  In January, an Environmental Stewardship option for late winter supplementary feeding became available to farmers.  The decision to do so was largely informed by the results of our long-term monitoring of winter and spring numbers of songbirds at Loddington.  The MOPS project on the development of constructed wetlands to reduce agricultural impacts on water ended this year, in time for the results to feed into plans for new agri-environmental policy.  Towards the end of the year, the results of Susanne Jarratt's PhD thesis on farmers' 'environmentally friendly farming careers' helped to inform the development of the new Environmental Stewardship scheme that will replace the existing schemes in 2015.

The 'School Farm' farm-scale demonstration catchment at Loddington is now well established as a focus for learning and discussing how our lowland landscape 'works'.  We published a conference paper on some initial findings this month*.  Within the landscape scale Water Friendly Farming project, we now have strong baseline data for the base of each of the three catchments, and for approximately 240 sampling sites across the 3,000ha study area.  This must be an unprecedented dataset, covering nutrient and pesticide concentrations, aquatic invertebrates and plants, and fish, with some additional data for birds and pollinators. Two PhD projects are providing further data.  We are also making good progress with putting in place various mitigation measures to improve water quality in the two 'treatment' catchments.  Thanks to all the participating farmers for their support for this work.
The upper Eye Brook catchment, part of the study area for the Water Friendly Farming project.  Our research activities cover a range of scales from field and farm, to landscape, and follow through to management on the ground, and to regional and national agri-environmental policy.
Scaling up to the whole river basin, we are proud to be key players in the Welland Valley Partnership, a prime example of an active and successful partnership between statutory agencies, industry and NGOs.  The partnership continues to provide workshops and one-to-one advisory visits to farmers, and capital grants for measures designed to improve water quality, as well as addressing other issues that are of common interest or concern.

The results of our own research at and around Loddington are at the heart of the numerous workshops and other events held in our eco-build visitor centre at Loddington.  About 1,200 visitors, most of them farmers and farm advisors, as well as regulators, policy makers and students, have benefited from our research through such events in 2013.

Thanks to John Szczur, Jamie Partridge, and our students, interns and research partners for all their hard work during 2013.  In 2014, we will continue to gather data that can guide both practice on individual farms, and policy at regional and national levels of governance.  I will do my best to keep this blog updated with results as they emerge.

* Stoate, C & Szczur, J. 2013. An ecosystem services approach to productive land management in a farm-scale catchment.  Rethinking Agricultural Systems in the UK. Aspects of Applied Biology 121: 35-42.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Learning from Environmental Stewardship

Congratulations to PhD student Susanne Jarratt who successfully defended her PhD thesis earlier this month. Susanne used detailed qualitative analysis of interviews with 43 farmers to explore the way in which they developed environmentally friendly farming careers through their participation in agri-environment schemes. The farms were located in the contiguous National Character Areas of North West Norfolk, Breckland and the East Anglian Chalk, an area which has experienced a series of agri-environment schemes, from early Environmentally Sensitive Areas to the most recent Entry Level Stewardship.

Although the reasons for farmer's participation in agri-environment schemes have been well researched previously, we wanted to find out how farmers engaged with the process through time, in order to inform the development of the next phase of Stewardship schemes.  Summarising the main findings of a PhD thesis in a single table is a sightly dangerous thing to do, but the table below provides brief descriptions of the career pathways that Susanne's research was able to identify.  Career ‘stages’ represent points along the career in which changes are made, influenced by ‘contingencies’ that may be internal or external to the farm business. A summary of the research was published this week as a conference paper*.

Career pathway
Conservation for shooting (parallel career)
Conservation at the margins
Little or no additionality but a pathway for maintaining existing high conservation value areas
Conservation wage
Additional conservation measures in return for payments
Conservation opportunity
A pathway for realising conservation aspirations, whether very general or species based
Self-directed and funded, sometimes informed by previous involvement in Environmental Stewardship

Informed by this research, we have suggested that the following should be incorporated into the new Stewardship scheme in order to ensure optimum uptake, ownership and delivery in terms of conservation benefits:
  • ·    Flexibility to enter schemes at different levels, recognising the different careers and stages at which farmers participate in Environmental Stewardship
  • ·   A mechanism for the provision of consistent trusted advice that can be instrumental in developing farmers’ environmentally friendly farming careers
  • ·   Recognition of Stewardship as a learning process on which farmers can build through progression to higher levels, or opt out to apply their knowledge and experience through self-directed careers
  • ·    Synergies of the scheme structure and options with shoot management interests to exploit benefits of game management where there is evidence that these occur
  • ·   The structure of the scheme should support contingencies to encourage farmers to move from Conservation at the Margin to Conservation Wage careers, and from Conservation Wage to Conservation Opportunity careers
  • ·    Recognition of the importance of Conservation Opportunity careers in producing ‘leaders’ who are able to modify social norms and recruit neighbouring farmers, thereby delivering benefits at the landscape scale.

* Jarratt, S., Morris, C. & Stoate, C. (2013) The role of Environmental Stewardship in the development of farmers' environmental learning careers. Rethinking Agricultural Systems in the UK. Aspects of Applied Biology 121:

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Flagship species and bird conservation

Our research at Loddington has shown how management of a wild game species, in our case pheasants, is associated with increases in a wide range of other bird species, including Biodiversity Action Plan species such as song thrush and spotted flycatcher.  Other GWCT monitoring has revealed increases in skylarks and corn buntings in response to management carried out for grey partridges.  Management for one species can benefit others, and iconic flagship species can serve as indicators of conservation benefits to other species.

However, some long term monitoring I have been contributing to in Portugal suggests that we should not always assume that this relationship holds.  The Alentejo region of southern Portugal is an interesting mixture of relatively intensive irrigated farming (including arable crops and olives), and traditional extensive steppe incorporating fallows within low input arable rotations which form a Natura 2000 area.  These low input systems are a haven for globally threatened species such as great bustard and lesser kestrel, but also a range of other steppe species such as short-toed and calandra larks. Agri-environment schemes are in place to maintain populations of the iconic flagship species which bring income to the area as an attraction for bird watchers.  In a paper in Conservation Letters*, we present the findings of our monitoring, comparing bird numbers in the 1995-1997 period with the present day.
Great bustards in front of a lesser kestrel colony site in the Alentejo study area               © C Stoate
Both great bustards and lesser kestrels responded well to the agri-environment schemes, relative to the control areas without such management.  The surprise was that other steppe birds did not. In the paper, we discuss various potential causes for this discrepancy, but the honest answer is that we don't know. One possible influence is that agricultural policy that resulted in replacement of low input cereal crops with more specialised livestock systems countered the positive effects of the agri-environment scheme management for some species.  At least in this southern European environment, it seems that we cannot always assume that the status of iconic flagship species necessarily reflects that of the other species that share the same habitat. The ecological requirements of all target species may need to be considered in designing agri-environment scheme management options.

Santana, J., Reino, R., Stoate, C., Borralho, R., Rio Carvalho, C., Schindler, S., Moreira, F., Bugalho, M., Flores Ribeiro, P., Lima Santos, J., Vaz, A., Morgado, R., Porto, M., Beja, P. Mixed effects of long-term conservation investment in Natura 2000 farmland. Conservation Lettersdoi: 10.1111/conl.12077

Friday, 18 October 2013

Mapping our soils

Thanks to the services of SoilQuest, we have recently mapped soils and nutrients across all the agricultural land in our School Farm demonstration catchment at Loddington.  SoilQuest have also installed soil moisture and temperature sensors in some fields.  Together, these will help us to understand better how our catchment 'works'.  We will have a better idea of how variations in crop yields relate to variations in soil
type and nutrients within fields, how crop growth reflects soil moisture and temperature, and how stream flow and water quality are influenced by soil conditions.
Soil map for one of the arable fields in the Water Friendly Farming project

We have also mapped soil and nutrients across several fields in the Water Friendly Farming project catchments in the upper Eye Brook and Stonton Brook.  These will provide participating farmers with information that will help inform their decisions on soil management and fertiliser applications.  Understanding our soils is essential to improving our crop production, as well as to reducing our impact on water.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The benefits of a living soil

Water running off the surface of the soil when it rains is not going to be available to crops in drier times.  It also takes with it soil and nutrients that would be better left in the field and cause problems once they get into streams and rivers. 

We know from our previous research that both woodland and pasture have less impct on water quality than does arable land.  This may be linked to the biology of soils in the three land use types.  Cranfield University students, Michael Weeks and David Stella have looked at earthworm biomass, microbial biomass and soil organic matter across the three land uses in our 'School Farm' demonstration catchment.  Their results are presented below and clearly show that each of these measures is lowest for arable land. 
Increasing earthworm numbers, microbial biomass and organic matter is likely to improve the capacity of the cropped area to take up water when it rains, but will also improve the functioning of the soil to the benefit of the crops we are growing for food.  We are currently exploring the means of achieving this by reducing tillage intensity and retaining crop residue.
Earthworm biomass, microbial biomass and organic carbon in arable, pasture and woodland soils in the School Farm catchment. I have converted the three measures to a common index in order to get them all on the same graph.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Strengthening links with the University of Nottingham

One of the great strengths of the Allerton Project is that our independence allows us to work with universities and other research organisations across the country.  This collaborative approach has served us well over the years, bringing a wide range of expertise to the equally wide range of rural issues we explore at and around Loddington.

Our links with the University of Nottingham are particularly strong as it is one of the closest universities to us, and has an excellent Geography Department and agricultural campus at Sutton Bonington.  For several years we have co-supervised PhD, MSc and undergrad students, delivered lectures on campus, and hosted field trips to Loddington and the nearby sites on which we work.  Student projects have included a social science study of farmers' 'environmental learning careers' through their involvement in Stewardship schemes, a landscape scale bird community study, and an assessment of infiltration rates associated with different land uses.  Topics covered in lectures include catchment management, land use and biodiversity, and West African agro-ecology.

It is a real privilege recently to have been made an Honorary Professor with the university and I look forward to building on our existing links to our mutual benefit.

Nottingham University student, Grant Thompson identifying invertebrates in the lab at Loddington as part of his work that will provide us with new information on the ecology of the farm, and him with an MSc.  Co-supervision between the university and ourselves combines high academic standards with practical experience and applied results. 

Friday, 24 May 2013

Some results from the Water Friendly Farming project

Our monitoring of the water quality in the Water Friendly Farming project study catchments is now providing an insight into some important issues.  Phosphorus is the main nutrient limiting plant growth in water, and the reason for the failure of many watercourses to meet water quality targets.  It can come from farmland, where it is associated with eroded soils, or from domestic sources such as sewage treatment works or septic tanks.  Pesticides are mainly of concern for drinking water supply, the most problematic being Metaldehyde (from slug pellets) as this cannot be removed by currently available water treatment methods.  We are monitoring both phosphate and Metaldehyde as part of the Water Friendly Farming project.


In each of the three catchments, our periodic sampling of water from tributaries over the past year reveals that the highest phosphorus concentrations are associated with the tributary containing a sewage treatment works.  This is most prominently the case for the Eye Brook (graph below), but in each of the other two catchments the phosphorus concentration in the tributary with the sewage treatment works is at least twice that of the other tributaries, making a substantial impact on the quality of water at the base of the catchment.

Total phosphorus concentrations in the upper Eye Brook, the end of the catchment, and three tributaries, includig one with a sewage treatment works (Means of 18 samples taken over 12 months).

This is a reminder that, even in agricultural catchments, all residents are having an impact on water quality.  We are drawing up plans for a local campaign to reduce the use of phosphate-based washing products, an action that can reduce phosphate discharge by up to about 20%. 

Farming remains an important contributor of sediment and associated phosphorus, mainly through the loss of soil to water, and the farming community across the upper Eye Brook and Stonton Brook catchments is active in taking steps to reduce both loss of soil and nutrients to water.


Regulation of drinking water supply sets an arbitrary limit of 0.1 micrograms of pesticide per litre of water, regardless of any risk to the environment or human health.  As well as monitoring Metaldehyde at the base of two of the project catchments, when it rained we also collected samples from field drains, potentially an important pathway by which pesticides move from arable land to watercourses.  Our sampling was carried out during the autumn when slug pellets are widely used on crops.

Metaldehyde concentrations at the base of each catchment exceeded the limits set for drinking water supply.  As it was such a wet autumn across the country, this is much the same as for many other streams nationally.  In field drains, the concentration was much lower, with the exception of one drain which was very variable and reached much higher concentrations (graph below).

Autumn Metaldehyde concentrations at the base of two catchments, and in field drains during rain.

This suggests that perhaps field drains are not routinely the main pathway by which Metaldehyde reaches water.  The one occurrence of high concentrations may have resulted from inaccurate placement or spillage and numerous small incidents such as this, whether involving surface runoff or drains, may be what is causing the drinking water limits to be exceeded.  Alternative products to Metaldehyde are either much more expensive or have proven negative impacts on wildlife, including beneficial invertebrates such as earthworms and pest predators.  Responsible use of Metaldehyde provides the best option for farm businesses, for food production and for the environment.

Friday, 19 April 2013

'School Farm' demonstration catchment

After more than twenty years of farming and data collection, we have a valuable set of records for our farm at Loddington.  This is especially so for the 140 hectare catchment in the northern part of the farm where, as well as data on crop inputs and yields, soil nutrients and bird distribution, we have an important aquatic dataset for a three year period from the Defra-funded 'PARIS' project. This includes nutrient concentrations, aquatic invertebrates and diatoms.

The GIS base map for the catchment has recently been completed by Linnea Aronsson, providing a resource that will have a number of applications.  As the map shows, the catchment is a microcosm of lowland England, comprising an ancient semi-natural SSSI woodland, other more recent woods and hedges, cropped land and pasture, of which the latter is used for lamb production, and for horses.  There are rural houses and roads, ditches, streams and ponds, and habitats created specifically for wildlife under our Environmental Stewardship agreement.

We are developing this catchment as a practical demonstration of ecosystem services, the various benefits we gain from the environment and the interactions between them.  To this end we installed new water monitoring equipment at the base of the catchment last year, mapped the breeding birds, and surveyed earthworms, soil microbial biomass and soil organic matter in relation to the three major land uses – arable, pasture and woodland.  This initiative provides an exciting opportunity to explore how we maintain or increase food production to meet growing demand, while simultaneously delivering all the other resources our society demands of the agricultural landscape. 

Friday, 22 March 2013

Exploring a Productive Landscape

Here are a few comments from prominent readers of my book.  It is available as a free pdf HERE.

Jonathan Dimbleby, current affairs presenter, organic farmer and former president of the Soil Association and Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). “This book is a great example of the ‘Big Society’ in action.  Skill, expertise, dedication and enthusiasm have brought together, in one small place, a host of very important issues that face the whole country.” 

Mary Creagh MP, Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs.  “There is a growing body of evidence about the impact of climate change and human behaviour on our environment. Yet too often policy and science is developed at an abstract level. ‘Exploring a productive landscape’ provides a practical example of the benefits of involving people in the environmental decisions that affect their community, and their role in creating a sustainable future. It tells the story of how a community project in Leicestershire has responded to the challenges it faces and draws wider lessons on the issues of land management and conservation.”

Jim Paice MP, former Government Farming Minister. “The Defra Business Plan recognises that the environment is the natural foundation on which our society and economy are built and that our long-term prosperity, economic success and quality of life are enhanced by our environment.  As this book highlights, if we use and manage our natural assets in a sustainable way, they will continue to meet not only our needs, such as for energy, sustenance, minerals, fresh water, clean air and fertile soils, but the needs of future generations.”

The Right Reverend Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester.  “This excellently produced book reveals how the farmed landscape shapes everyone’s lives, despite most being far removed from that environment.  It will stimulate the debate over how the farmed landscape should be used in the future.”

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Blueprints for landscape management?

The Welland Valley Partnership, a consortium chaired by the Welland Rivers Trust and comprising GWCT, NFU, CLA, EA, Anglian Water and others with an interest in the Welland river basin recently celebrated its first year with the publication of its 'Improvement Plan' for the catchment.  One of the first Defra pilot catchments for integrated management, the Welland has been at the forefront of the pilot process which ended in December, and with the publication of the plan.  But what really matters is the work going on on the ground, and as the plan documents, there is a lot of it. Projects include restoration of the Stamford mill stream, fish passes and river habitat improvement, a river restoration project in Market Harborough, workshops and one-to-one advisory visits for farmers, capital grants for measures to improve water quality, and a campaign to improve the management of septic tanks.  Although initiated in response to the legal requirements of the EU Water Framework Directive, the strength of the Welland plan lies in the commitment and enthusiasm of local people with differing but related objectives.

At the core of the activities in the Welland is our own Water Friendly Farming project in the headwater tributaries of the Eye Brook and Stonton Brook and our other research at and around Loddington. Water Friendly Farming builds on our previous work in the Eye Brook which combined our scientific knowledge of the agricultural environment with local knowledge in the catchment community to explore a whole range of issues associated with the management and use of natural resources.  An account of the Eye Brook work was recently published as a journal paper which can be downloaded HERE.  For those who don't have the time or inclination to delve into an academic paper, here are some under-pinning principles which can be adopted or adapted to local circumstances in other areas:
  • Combining scientific research with local knowledge strengthens both knowledge communities to the benefit of all through an improved shared understanding of landscape scale issues and catchment processes.
  • Identifying cultural as well as economic motivators for individuals and businesses is an important element of community engagement, both within and beyond the farming community, strengthening 'buy-in' from participants. Acknowledging and accepting differences in values and objectives within rural communities is essential to the development and implementation of management on the ground.
  • Learning about land use history strengthens local identify and 'ownership' of agri-environmental problems and opportunities
  • Recognition and acceptance of the interelationship between multiple objectives (e.g. food production, water quality improvement, climate change mitigation, flood management etc) should be central to catchment management policy and practice
  • Identification and promotion of private benefits must be combined with consistent government support for activities that deliver public benefits

Monday, 4 February 2013

Soil management workshop

Good soil management results in healthy crops and clean water, but the latest research on this issue is not always accessible to farmers.  With support from the Welland Rivers Trust, the Allerton Project hosted a lively workshop for local farmers last week.  As well as our own research with ADAS on tramline management, the 35 farmers attending heard about the latest research on Michelin's tyres, including how to select the most apporopriate tyre to optimise vehicle performance and minimise soil compaction.  The role of different cultivation regimes for blackgrass control was another popular talk, and we also heard how Wessex Water supports farmers in the southwest to adopt practices that help to maintain water quality.

There was some lively discussion between talks ...

... and over lunch!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Winter feeding and fattening

The latest available figures reveal that sixteen HLS agreement holders have adopted the new supplementary feeding option to support farmland birds in the critical late winter period when other sources of food are in short supply.  Some farmers are also adding this option to their ELS agreements.  Given the very short time in which to apply back in December, this is very encouraging and is a classic example of research by the Allerton Project (and colleagues in BTO and RSPB) being translated into practical action on the ground.

The data that we have gathered at Loddington over many years suggest that winter feeding results in more than twice as many songbirds present during the second half of the winter.  More importantly though, our results suggest that breeding bird numbers could also be up by 30%.  More food in late winter means more birds, and better survival of those birds so that more are present in the following spring.

Trail Camera image of yellowhammers feeding at a feeder at Loddington

This encouraging prospect and the current snowy weather have combined to prompt me to dig out some data from several years ago when I first got interested in this issue and started catching yellowhammers through the winter to see how much fat they were carrying.  Birds lay down more fat as the winter progresses - insurance against uncertainty associated with cold weather, shorter days, snow cover and depleted food reserves.  In late winter, fat levels decline and birds become more vulnerable to starvation.

Yellowhammer body condition index, reflecting fat reserves (1995/96 data).

I also have some results for the same period from the Rybachy bird ringing station on the eastern shore of the Baltic.  Fat reserves in yellowhammers are very different here, and considerably higher in the autumn than they are for British birds.  The reason is that Russian birds are laying down fat to fuel a southward migration, rather than to survive the winter on the same site.  There are no data for the winter because the birds have gone!

The low fat levels in the British birds in March serve to highlight the need for supplementary feeding in the scond half of the winter, but especially at the end of the winter when the food supply is at its lowest.  But these data are also a reminder that the same species can behave differently in different countries.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Water Friendly Farming update

Record rainfall on waterlogged soils at Loddington over the past few months (see Loddington Estate Blog) has brought farming activity to a halt and has flooded local roads, but research activity has also stepped up in response.  Following two dry winters, the recent rain provides opportunities for sampling water in the streams at Loddington and in the three headwater catchments of the Water Friendly Farming project.  The resulting data will contribute to an essential baseline against which to measure improvements in water quality over the next few years.  

Allerton Project Ecologist, John Szczur, processing water samples from one of our automated water samplers before despatching them to the labs for analysis.

The improvements in water quality are expected to arise as a result of a range of measures that will be put in place across the 20km2 agricultural landscape of the upper Eye Brook and Stonton Brook over the next year or so.  It is a big task in terms of the scale of both the monitoring and the mitigation, but on our side we have strong support from the farming community and experience gained from a suite of relevant research projects over the past decade.  The physical measures that we have already started to create on the ground include field drain interceptor ponds, wetlands designed to receive surface runoff, and carefully sited dams in ditches.  These will be backed up with practical advice to farmers, and we have not forgotten domestic sources of nutrients such as septic tanks.

Watch this space for the latest developments and results to emerge from the project, and for news of other activities on our own farm at Loddington.

Local contractor John Farnsworth creating one of the first field drain interceptor ponds to be made as part of the Water Friendly Farming project.