Friday, 18 December 2015

Climate change research

It is 13ºC in the shade according to my thermometer, but less than a week to Christmas according to my children.  It has been a warm year, the warmest on record, consistent with an alarming trend in recent years.  We have also experienced yet another winter of heavy rain and flooding across much of the country.  At Loddington, along with much of the country, we have experienced exceptional waterlogging of soils in recent years, with effects on crop yields that have taken two years to recover. Wildlife species such as Little Egret, Nuthatch, Roesel's Bush-cricket and Lesser Marsh Grasshopper, all of which have expanded their range northwestwards, also continue to remind us of climate change.
Flooded fields beside the river Welland

In a paper* published recently in Environmental Management, I joined other researchers from across Europe to explore the implications of climate change for water related issues.  The paper was one outcome from an EU funded project, 'ClimateWater' in which we summarised the latest water-related climate change research for European policy makers. Human demand for water is expected to increase substantially in the coming years because of an increasing population and pressure associated with climate change.  Land use associated with food production is a major part of this process, and land management is increasingly recognised as being integrated with water related issues such as flood management and drinking water quality and supply.

This month's Paris climate change agreement has come none too soon.  In fact the science tells us that it has come too late to avoid some devastating consequences for our species, and of course for countless others.  Some aspects such as the important and increasing emissions associated with aviation and shipping have not been addressed at all.  That said, the agreement represents an enormous achievement on the part of those involved and marks a watershed in global climate change policy.  It is hard to think of any research that is more important to our future than that on climate change issues.  Finally that research is being translated into policy. The success of the agreement will depend not just on whether individual governments accept it as being legally binding, but on whether it serves as a real foundation for accelerating genuine climate change mitigation, and strategies for adaptation.
The Alqueva Dam, Portugal, where tensions between food production and water are exacerbated by climate change

So what is our contribution to this effort at Loddington?  Renewable energy is a core theme for our buildings, taking the form of wood fuel heating (using wood chip from our own woods) and photovoltaic panels for electricity generation, all of which were installed before the recent government cuts in support for renewable energy.  Straw bale and sheeps' wool insulation ensure that even wood fuel use is kept to a minimum.  Teleconferences and home-working reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with travel. Rainwater is also collected from the roof for flushing toilets and washing, thereby reducing pressure on treated drinking water supply.

Farmers locally are increasingly concerned about the health of their soils.  Management that increases organic matter and improves soil structure increases the workability of the soil by cultivation equipment (reducing diesel use), enhances the capacity of the soil to retain moisture in summer and during winter rains, and helps to lock up carbon.  We anticipate that reducing the frequency and intensity of cultivations, as we are doing at Loddington, by introducing grass leys into the rotation and adopting a no-till approach where and when possible, is a particularly effective approach for achieving all of these objectives.  We are gathering the relevant data at and around Loddington, and I will report on our research here over the coming year.

A particular focus for us this year is cover crops that are designed to reduce soil erosion during heavy rainfall, and contribute organic matter to the soil. We are testing cover crop mixtures grown as Ecological Focus Area under Common Agricultural Policy Greening requirements against other options for a range of criteria, including those associated with climate change adaptation and mitigation.

In our landscape scale Water Friendly Farming project, we continue to monitor water quality, and work closely with farmers to improve this by adopting methods that are compatible with, and wherever possible beneficial to their businesses.  In the coming year, we also plan to explore the benefits of this approach to manging flood risk in urban areas downstream.  The long-awaited translation of climate change research into meaningful policy and action through the Paris climate change agreement provides additional impetus to strengthen our own research, and the practical application of our results.

*Garnier, M., Harper, D., Blaskovicova, L., Hancz, G., Janauer, G., Jolánkai, Z., Lanz, E., Lo Porto, A., Mándoki, M., Pataki, B., Rahuel, J-L., Robinson, V., Stoate, C., Tóth, E. & Jolánkai, G. 2015. Climate Change and European Water Bodies, a Review of Existing Gaps and Future Research Needs: Findings of the Climate Water Project. Environmental Management 56 (2): 271-285.

Friday, 6 November 2015

A tale of two farms, and two approaches to bird conservation

We have combined forces, and data, with RSPB colleagues to examine the changes in bird numbers on our respective farms, our own farm at Loddington, and the RSPB’s ‘Hope farm’ in Cambridgeshire.  The results have just been published online in Bird Study.

As a result of the management on the two farms, since 1992 at Loddington, and since 2000 at Hope Farm, songbird numbers have increased substantially compared to the regional trend.  Farmland birds, including BAP species, have done particularly well at Hope Farm, whereas along with some farmland and generalist species, BAP species associated with woodland such as Spotted Flycatcher, Song Thrush and Bullfinch increased more at Loddington.  The targeted management at both farms delivered annual rates of increase of 10-20% for a wide range of species. 
In contrast to the more open farmland landscape at Hope Farm, the wooded farmland at Loddington has also supported higher predator numbers.  Crows and magpies were controlled at Loddington during the early part of the study period, but as a research exercise to understand the relevance of this to bird conservation, predator control was not carried out during the latter part of the period.  There was an associated decline in numbers of some songbird species towards the end of the period, especially species with open, cup-shaped nests that are vulnerable to predation.  This predation effect may explain the tendency for higher annual rates of increase in bird numbers at Loddington than at Hope Farm.
There were also significant benefits arising from the creation and management of habitat on farmland, especially at Hope Farm. Habitats designed to provide insect food for birds during the breeding season had particularly strong positive effects on a range of species.  Such habitats include conservation headlands, pollen and nectar mixtures, floristic margins, beetle banks, skylark plots and ponds, all of which can contribute to the abundance of potential insect food, and access to them by foraging birds.
Landscape characteristics may influence the response of bird populations to the creation of new habitats
Comparing two farms with different landscapes and different approaches to bird conservation has taken us a step forward in our understanding of how to restore bird numbers.  It is clear that we need to recognise differences across the lowland landscape and accept that a blanket approach to all farms is not appropriate.  Bird conservation on farmland needs to accommodate variation in landscape type, and importantly, the interests of the farmers responsible for managing it.
Underlying this though, is a clear need for a mechanism to support farmers to create habitats that are based on sound science, compatible with farm business objectives, and practical to create and manage.  Applicants to the new Countryside Stewardship scheme will soon discover whether their applications have been successful.  For those that are, we have demonstrated that Stewardship provides an essential tool in the box for restoring bird numbers.

The Bird Study paper is available at

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Getting down to earth

Phil Jarvis and Nathan Morris discuss soil management
Nearly thirty farmers from the upper Welland river basin enjoyed an informative day at Loddington earlier this week when they joined soil management experts for practical talks and field demonstrations of drills and a sub-soiler.  The event was part of an on-going programme of workshops and other initiatives coordinated by the Welland Valley Partnership of which the Allerton Project is a key player. As well as hearing about our own soils research with our partner, NIAB TAG, farmers were able to hear from external speakers from industry.  Such events provide a great opportunity for local farmers to learn about the latest research results and see the latest equipment, but also provide a valuable opportunity for us to receive feedback from them about the relevance and applicabilty of such research and equipment for local farms.

George Renner explains his farming system to the Welland ABG
There are other ways in which we exchange knowledge between research and farmers in the upper Welland.  A recent and highly successful initiative is the Welland Arable Business Group which provides an opportunity for local farmers to benchmark the economic performance of their businesses against each other, and against the regional average, using the HGCA software, Cropbench+.  Discussion about the varying approaches and performance of farm businesses is an extrememly useful exercise for all concerned.  It highlights the current poor returns from arable farming across businesses of all types and sizes, and farmers have identified a need to reduce input costs to maintain the economic viability of their businesses.  This reflects the situation across the country - staying in business, not maximising food production, is the primary concern for arable farms.  Optimising resource use is key to this and there is an increasing interest in improving soil management, including a better understanding of soil organic matter.  We have been able to help by gathering soil organic matter data for participating farms, resulting in benchmarking organic matter, as well as economics, across farms.  We have also been able to help by gathering data on soil compaction which can be used to inform farmers' decisions about remediation.  There is increasing discussion about a move towards smaller lighter farm equipment that would reduce both costs and impact on soils.  Such changes in management can deliver public benefits such as improved drinking water, flood control and biodiversity, as well as addressing the immediate concerns of farm businesses.

We strive to make our research topical, practical and relevant to farmers, as well as to the policy makers who set the boundaries in which farm businesses operate.  Close collaboration with the local farming community enables us to ensure that our research is in line with the economic objectives of farm businesses. Only by adopting this approach will that research result in widespread on-farm changes that also deliver wider environmental, social and cultural objectives for society as a whole.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Sustainable Intensification in practice

At the heart of a busy schedule last week was a meeting of the Study Site Leads from each of the five research and demonstration farms participating in the the Sustainable Intensification research Platform (SIP).  We were joined by representatives from LEAF, Duchy College and our funder, Defra, and for most, it was their first visit to Loddington.
SIP study site leaders outside the visitor centre at Loddington
Our initial contribution to the SIP comprises trials of crop establishment and cover crops as a means of improving soil function and crop performance, while also delivering environmental benefits and increasing the long-term economic performance of the cropping system. For this work, we are collaborating closely with our colleagues at NIAB TAG who are conducting similar research at another SIP study site, Morely, an arable farm in Norfolk.  As well as testing similar management practices, we are adopting the same protocol for data collection so that the data will be comparable, and in some cases, can be analysed across the two sites.  Sharing expertise and data in this way is one of the great strengths of the SIP.
NIAB and Allerton Project staff collecting soil samples

The platform also enables us to develop our existing relationship with other research organisations and to establish new links with others.  Our resident soils researcher, Nicola Hinton, was joined in the second half of the winter by Sarah-Jane Osborne, a PhD Intern registered with Nottingham University and working with Rothamsted Research.  Together with NIAB TAG staff, they have gathered data on a range of soil physical and biological properties in relation to the various management practices we have adopted.  The data are currently being analysed and will form a valuable baseline against which to monitor future change.  We are also developing our plans for this coming autumn's trials.

The SIP also provides us with an opportunity to initiate work on sheep and grassland, a new venture for us that is only made possible through collaboration with Nottingham University.  Nigel Kendall's research explores the relationship between sward minerals and sheep performance with a view to more efficient management of both grassland and the livestock grazing it.  This brings new expertise and information to the Allerton Project, but also strengthens the SIP by extending the scope for us to collaborate with SIP study sites that focus on livestock systems.

Grass, clover and lucerne ley at Loddington
The approach will also benefit local farmers by ensuring that we have something to offer both arable and livestock farmers in this strongly mixed farming area.  But there may also be scope for closer integration of the two systems.  With neighbouring sheep farmer, Gareth Owen, we are already exploring this potential at Loddington by introducing grass leys into the arable rotation to break the life cycle of sheep parasites, improve forage quality, reduce blackgrass populations, and improve soil structure and organic matter.  As well as these benefits to arable and livestock enterprises, we expect environmental benefits such as improved water quality and ecology, flood peak attenuation, and carbon sequestration. It is also associated with increased collaboration between farmers, increased landscape diversity and additional advantages for wildlife.  Such multiple economic, environmental and social benefits are what sustainable intensification is all about.

Sheep in the instrumented 'School Farm' demonstration catchment at Loddington

Friday, 3 April 2015

Fields for the Future report

Back in 2012, we published a report, 'Fields for the Future' to mark the first two decades of the Allerton Project.  In the subsequent three years, there have been great developments at Loddington.  There are new research projects, new project partners, and an increasing number of people wanting to learn about the results of our research.  Our eco-build visitor centre which was opened in 2012 is now in almost constant use.  But for those who can't visit us just yet, we have enlarged and republished our 'Fields for the Future' report, updating the results of our long term monitoring and adding new pages to cover projects such as the landscape scale Water Friendly Farming project, and the School Farm demonstration catchment. You can download a pdf of the report here.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Everything is connected

One of the great privileges associated with coordinating a wide range of research is that I get invited to be involved in interesting activities elsewhere.  Early in January I presented an overview of our catchment research to the Oxford Real Farming Conference which attracted 650 people this year.  This event is now reaching out to a wide range of farmers and other food producers, and combines research results with some innovative case studies and much lively discussion.  The focus of this discussion was largely around how best to manage soil.  There is an increasing recognition amongst farmers from a range of backgrounds that appropriate management of this most fundamental of our resources is essential to any productive farming system, whether arable, livestock or horticulture.

A couple of weeks ago, we hosted a project meeting for the EU funded VALERIE project at Loddington involving researchers from ten countries and a range of farming systems across Europe.  The project enables farmers to identify areas of research that are of direct practical relevance to them, and to receive summaries of this research to inform their own management.  A web-based search engine is also being developed, with considerable emphasis on the use of farmer-friendly language.  There is also scope for on-farm trials to put into practice and evaluate the prioritised management practices within each farming community.  Through the Welland Valley Partnership, our East Midlands farmers have identified various issues associated with soil nutrient management as a priority for their businesses.

Farmers discuss groundnut productivity on their experimental plots
Also in January, I was very pleased to be asked to bring my experience of West African farming systems and agro-ecology to a meeting to discuss an RSPB project in Ghana.  My own work a few years ago was with farmers on the Senegal/Gambia border and, amongst other things, involved on-farm trials to evaluate the role of leaf mulches from indigenous tree species in improving soil organic matter and crop yields.  This participatory research with three village farming communities was published back in 2008 (International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 6:122-132).  The management of trees in West African farming systems can have a large influence on cropping, but also on local culture, medicine, fuel, and through stabilisation of soils, on the coastal fisheries that are important to the diet and economy of the local community. Trees are also an important habitat for terrestrial wildlife, including migratory warblers.  For the RSPB, the focus is on understanding the management of farmland used by wintering wood warblers.

At the end of January, I helped with a workshop in Dublin as part of a project funded by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency.  The project identifies gaps in our knowledge about catchment management and helps to set the Irish catchment management research agenda for the coming years. Thanks to modern water treatment, the River Liffey and Dublin Bay where Molly Malone once obtained her cockles and mussels are not now the source of disease that they were in her time. But there is still scope for improving the water quality of Irish rivers and estuaries.  In terms of the agricultural issues, the greatest challenge is posed by intensification of dairy farms with the potential for increased release of nutrients into water.  The group that I chaired emphasised the need to consider the legacy of past land management as an influence on current ecology, and the possible slow response to current management strategies.  The opportunities associated with multiple outcomes from individual management practices were also highlighted.  The group also recognised the existing role for dairy co-ops in leading a move to better nutrient use efficiency to satisfy a growing global market for a quality product with strong environmental credentials.  The link between healthy soils, productive farming and clean water is becoming increasingly well accepted, although there remains a need to develop a more collaborative approach with farmers to apply this concept more widely.

Protesters against water charges in central Dublin
My departure from Dublin was delayed slightly by a protest against water charges which blocked the centre of the city.  Whether it is a right or a commodity, there is no doubt that there are strong feelings about access to clean water.  It's supply is intricately linked with food production and wildlife conservation and we all have much to learn about this relationship whether we are consumers, farmers, water companies or researchers.  The cost of treating and supplying water is unlikely to become any lower over the coming years and the question of how it should be paid for becomes increasingly poignant. Understanding the complexities of catchment management can help us identify those areas where costs can be shared to our collective mutual benefit. That is surely the case as much in Dublin as it is in Derby or Dakar.