Friday, 5 July 2013

The science behind the schemes

 PhD student Beth Brockett shares her experience of a knowledge exchange event that brought research scientists together with the people at the practical end of land management

The idea for a knowledge exchange event came about while I was having a chat with Chair of the Cumbrian Farmer Network, Will Rawling, over tea and cake in his kitchen. I was preparing to carry out fieldwork on Will’s farm to estimate soil carbon storage and nitrogen retention and he commented that, although he had attended many events about the importance of greenhouse gas mitigation and agriculture, no one had ever explained the science behind the process of soil carbon storage to him. I did my best to remedy this, and in return Will talked me through the processes involved in silage fermentation. It struck us both that it was a shame farmers and scientists didn’t talk like this more often and in June of this year twelve farmers, ten farm environment advisors and nine academics met at Will’s farm to discuss a range of scientific topics pertinent to livestock farming in the northwest.

The event started outside with three different activities. In one part of a field, academics gathered participants around a soil pit to explain research into soil compaction and how, when combined with intense rainfall, compaction can lead to flooding – a familiar problem for many farmers in the area. The group discussed how reducing stocking levels and farm traffic could help prevent this and recent research into how species-rich swards can improve soil structure. The discussion moved onto how hammering a length of drainpipe into the ground lets researchers “take the field into the lab” to measure the nitrogen which leaches from the soil during rainfall and how these measurements relate to the soil biota and grassland productivity.

Nearby, other scientists gathered farmers and advisors around what looked like an astronaut’s helmet (and was in fact an Infra-Red Gas Analyser) to explain the basics of soil photosynthesis and respiration, and how carbon and nitrogen emissions are measured in the field. After a brief explanation the Analyser started to measure the amount of photosynthesis occurring under the slightly grey conditions. The scientists then described new research into how plant traits, such as root length and leaf size, affect carbon and nitrogen retention underground and how this links to the activities of soil microbes. Did you know that there are more bacterial cells in a handful of soil than there are people on Earth?

The flow of knowledge travelled both ways and over in the farm yard, local farmers introduced the monitoring scheme on nearby Kinnerside Common. A collaboration between the commoners and Natural England, it aims to increase vegetation diversity on the common. The farmers are trained in plant identification and surveying “with the aid of a GPS, good eyes and a handbook” and paid for submitting information regularly.

Back in the farm workshop after coffee, discussion around use of satellite images to analyse vegetation and estimate below-ground processes led to lively debate, which continued over lunch.

After the event 94 per cent of attendees said they had found it worthwhile, with a number subsequently getting in touch for further information about the research. With reform of the EU Common Agricultural Policy and changes to the UK’s agri-environment schemes likely to consider managing farmland to deliver ecosystem services like absorbing greenhouse gases, these conversations benefit all parties:

This kind of event enables scientists to understand how scientific outputs are interpreted on-the-ground and stimulates ideas and collaborations.  Catherine Baxendale from Lancaster University.

“Much of what was discussed at the meeting was actually about good farming practice and if it helps to reduce damage to the planet then we all win. I think more events focusing on how sustainable food production can work alongside genuine environmental management systems, would be well received and valued by everyone, it gets us working together and sharing knowledge.”  Chair of the Cumbrian Farmer Network and host Will Rawling

Thoroughly enjoyed today.  Personally, I would like a whole day on each topic.” Farmer Glenis Postlethwaite.

The event was sponsored by the Agricultural Ecology Group of the British Ecological Society and the Ecosystems Knowledge Network and was supported by the Cumbrian Farmer Network, NERC and Lancaster and Manchester Universities.   For more information email: