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