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.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Water Friendly Farming results

In November, we presented the latest results to emerge from the Water Friendly Farming project to a mixed audience of MPs, civil servants, researchers and NGO representatives in Westminster.  You can download the report here.  We finished our three years of baseline data gathering in March when wildlife ponds were completed and various interception ponds were made operational across the two 'treatment' catchments in order to reduce the impact of farming on water.  Earth and log dams in ditches, field drain interception ponds, flood water ponds, improved field drainage and stream fencing have all been carried out.  We have also given some attention to domestic sources of phosphorus from septic tanks.

New ponds already benefit biodiversity in the landscape
For aquatic plants, four years of data have been gathered by the Freshwater Habitats Trust from ponds, ditches and streams and suggest a decline in the variety of plants over this period.  Despite being present for less than a year, the newly created wildlife ponds were already colonised by aquatic plants, offsetting the apparent decline in the wider landscape.  This is the first scientific evidence that habitat creation can prevent the loss of freshwater biodiversity at the landscape scale in this way.  Crucially, by creating habitats mainly in unproductive parts of farms, we have minimised any impact on food production or farm profitability.

Efficient field drainage reduces surface runoff and erosion
Modelling of the WFF project data by York University confirms that there is a role for interception ponds at the landscape scale to reduce flood risk, while also improving water quality and benefiting wildlife.  However, to reduce downstream flood risk by 20%, we would need ten times more interception ponds than we have so far created.  Given the enormous cost of this, both in terms of capital expenditure and lost food production, an increase at this scale is not feasible. This provides further confirmation of the need to manage soils to achieve multiple benefits including improved water quality, better nutrient use efficiency, and better crop performance, as well as reduced flood risk.  Good drainage is essential to arable operations and crop performance, and to reducing surface runoff and erosion, but there is also scope for holding water in soils and interception ponds in headwater catchments in order to reduce flood risk downstream.

Across all three years and all three catchments, the water quality data also reveal that domestic sources of phosphorus, as well as agricultural sources, are contributing to high concentrations recorded at the base of our study catchments.  Base of catchment peaks in phosphorus occur in late summer and autumn, before runoff from arable land takes place, and tributaries in which there are sewage treatment works have consistently higher P concentrations than purely agricultural ones.  This is a clear illustration of the need to address both domestic and agricultural sources of phosphorus together in order to improve water quality.

Although the baseline period of data collection has ended, the monitoring continues.  Continuing data collection will further enable us to understand what is going on in our study area and inform what we do in future to improve water quality, while wherever possible, bringing benefits to food production as well. We will be working increasingly closely with farmers to enable them to manage soils and nutrients to the benefit of us all.