Whilst development of new techniques, such as more accurate application, non-inversion tillage and use of winter cover-crops can address diffuse pollution, the advent of agri-environment schemes (which provide funding to farmers and land managers to farm in a way that supports biodiversity and improves the quality of water, air and soil) has allowed another avenue to tackle direct and indirect impacts of modern farming. However, the climate impact of modern farming is proving an intractable problem. Modern yields and productivity are only possible through the use of fertilisers and crop protection products, and these have climate costs in terms of their production and application, as well as use. Arable farming has to balance production of food with providing a home for farmland wildlife and reducing impacts on other ecosystem services provided or influenced by farmland.
We are currently engaged in two projects examining the balance between these competing demands on farmland:
- Grange (Hope) Farm, the RSPB’s lowland arable farm in Cambridgeshire, is run as a conventional farm, producing commercial quantities of typical combinable crops: wheat, oil seed rape, field beans, barley, millet. Alongside this we use a variety of management techniques to improve the farm as a wildlife habitat. Grange Farm has been in the Entry Level of Environmental Stewardship since its inception in 2007, and has also been involved in agri-environment research since the society took ownership in 2000. Since 2000, the farmland bird index has increase over 250 per cent, against a background of continued farmland bird declines. Having established it is possible to produce food whilst maintaining healthy farmland bird numbers, we are interested in the impacts of this management on other ecosystem services provided or regulated by arable farming. Having established the trade-offs between production and wildlife and greenhouse gas emissions over the first 13 years of our management at Grange Farm (Field et al 2015), we are now working with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and Agrii, seeking to find multifunctional solutions to agronomic problems typical of lowland cereal farming. Grange Farm is one site of a network investigating the effects of using rotational cover crops to help improve soil conditions and invertebrate food chains, as well as helping in controlling pernicious weeds.
Cambridge Conservation Initiative
- In a second work stream, we have engaged in a number of separate but linked projects, in collaboration with the Zoology Department, CambridgeUniversity, investigating the relationships between farming and conservation. Specifically, we are looking at the spatial arrangement of land uses dedicated to these two competing aims, and its effect on wildlife populations, agricultural production and polluting externalities of farming. In 2013, we convened an expert workshop in Cambridge, to address the possible benefits of increased per-area production in the UK on releasing land for conservation and its knock-on effects for climate change mitigation. This work, funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI), was published in Nature Climate Change in 2016.