4 Minute Read – article originally appeard in GWCT Gamewise Magazine
Professor Chris Stoate, head of research, talks to Kate Williams about the impact of the GWCT’s research and demonstration farm and providing a blueprint for future rural landscapes.
This year marks three decades since the GWCT established the Allerton Project at Loddington in Leicestershire, to research the effects of different farming methods on wildlife and the environment, and share the results through advisory and educational activities.
In the 30 years since, the project has developed a wide-ranging programme of research and welcomes thousands of visitors, from schoolchildren to farmers, agricultural advisors, Government ministers and statutory agencies. The late GWCT patron, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, visited twice and in February, the BBC’s flagship farming programme, Countryfile, filmed a special Allerton Project 30th anniversary episode.
The research team’s work covers topics including zero-till crop establishment, soil improvement, the effect of predation on farmland birds, pollinators, water quality and catchment research, cover and catch crops, and agroforestry. The results contribute significantly to national environmental policy. Today, the Allerton Project is an award-winning, pioneering blueprint for future rural landscapes.
What makes the project so unique?
The Allerton Project is a very special and unusual initiative. It’s hard to think of another research and demonstration farm quite like it. It combined food production and the environment at a time (1992) when it was thought it was one or the other. It was the first farm to implement a whole suite of measures that later became mainstream agri-environment options.
It has put wildlife management including predation control into practice which no other demonstration farm has done, producing the most rapid farmland bird recovery ever seen on an English farm. One of the great strengths of the Allerton Project, is that it covers that broad remit of agri-environmental issues and not just from a natural science perspective either, but from a social science and economic point of view as well. Both of which are a major influence on how farmers manage their land.
Why is it so important to demonstrate this research on a working commercial farm?
In recent years, views about agriculture and the environment have become over-simplified and very, very polarised. I’ve been with the Project since the beginning and what I think our research has been really important in demonstrating, is that these issues are more nuanced than we might wish. Our work helps with understanding and encouraging people to accept the complex challenges that farmers face and demonstrates the need for this sort of research.
In the first 10 years, our focus was on bird and wider farmland ecology, in particular nesting success and nest predation. Songbird numbers nationally had declined sharply since the 1970s and, by the ’90s views on the reasons for that decline were sharply divided. One side believed a steep rise in magpie numbers was to blame, and that predator control would solve the problem.
Others were adamant that the decline was down to loss of songbird habitat. With that study, during which our ecologist John Szczur monitored 7,000 nests, we were able to demonstrate that the processes involved in nest success or failure varied from one species to another. And that there was an interaction between habitat effects and predator abundance, rather than just one or the other.
Work funded by the Government on songbirds led to the development of a wild bird seed mix and research into the role of supplementary winter feeding. Both became widely adopted agri-environment options, benefiting bird numbers on farmland across the country.
Allerton Project research continues to add to our understanding of complex issues especially the relationship between land use and water quality. Why is this so important?
There has been an assumption that poor water quality is due to poor agricultural practice, but through research such as the landscape-scale Water Friendly Farming (WFF) project, we have been able to show that it is much more complicated than that.
WFF combines the active participation of farmers with scientific application and evaluation of measures to improve water quality, while maintaining farm incomes. Working in three headwater catchments, the research team put in a range of measures and monitored their effects by collecting data on flow, nutrient and pesticide concentrations, sediment, aquatic plants and invertebrates.
One of the Project’s important findings has been the impact of local residents on water quality. In rural areas, where population density is low, septic tanks and small sewage treatment works have been identified as the main driver of phosphorus concentrations in water.
Many of the catchments that are regarded as agricultural are actually severely impacted by those of us who live there, because the water treatment infrastructure is so much less effective in these rural areas. This discovery is informing changes to planning laws for residential development, as the domestic impact on water is being more widely recognised
It has been quoted that there are limited harvests left due to deteriorating soil health. How true is this?
Soil health is one of the biggest challenges facing farming, today and in the future. Our research into reducing tillage intensity identified benefits in reduced runoff and reduced crop establishment costs, which all helped to increase soil microbial biomass.
Another project found that vehicle tramlines were causing two to five times the amount of soil phosphorus loss and an erosion plot experiment revealed low ground pressure tyres cut runoff by half on Loddington’s clay soils. We were delighted that our work led to soil health being included in the Agriculture Act in 2020 and now farmers will be funded for soil preservation and restoration measures in the Environmental Land Management Scheme.
How relevant is your research to farmers on the ground?
Feedback from land managers is an essential part of our research, both through the involvement of the local farmer network in helping to set the research agenda, and from the many farmers and agricultural advisors who visit. The practical context is a very important part of our work – making it real for the people working on the ground, as well as for policymakers.
How valuable is collaboration with other organisations?
Collaboration runs through the Allerton Project’s 30 years. From the start, the considerable expertise of the team has been augmented by specialist knowledge from universities and other research partners, charities, students and farmers.
As a working farm, we experience many of the same pressures as other farms, giving the research team a unique understanding of the issues facing agriculture. The challenge is how we maintain food production, and national food security, while also delivering the societal benefits associated with environmental objectives, especially those around climate change. Crucially, at the same time, we need to maintain the economic viability of farm businesses.
What is the Allerton Project’s role in addressing those challenges?
We have 30 years of very wide ranging agrienvironmental research to build on in exploring the opportunities for future land management and land use change. Going forward, we will be working on soil health, grassland, agroforestry and further developing our recent work with livestock. We have achieved our first 30 years, so we’re just getting going.
Come and see the research by booking a visit or join one of the courses, relevant to agronomists, farmers, land agents, estate owners and conservation advisors. Contact us 01572 717220 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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