GWCT Research Round-up

Honey bee covered in pollen

It has been a good start to the year for the GWCT Research department, with five scientific papers published in just the first few weeks of 2020. These first papers of the year reflect the breadth and importance of our research, including studies on farming, fisheries, upland game management and an important paper on breeding bird populations.

They will be referred to by the academic community, relied upon by policymakers, and contribute to the evidence base that guides future practice in land management. Particularly in the light of our recent exit from the EU and in this period of uncertainty, producing high-quality scientific evidence is perhaps even more critical to underpinning the development of new farming and conservation policies.

This year’s publications build on the success of 2019, which saw more than 30 scientific papers, presentations and publications from GWCT research staff, across our fields of expertise. This blog highlights just a few of the important developments of the past year.

Research into the farmed environment has explored the value of different features across the landscape, both for pollinators and for insects that can provide natural pest control for farmers, such as beetles that eat aphids. Although this area of science doesn’t usually receive much interest from the mainstream media, insect declines are so alarming that they have been widely reported.

This is not only because of their vital role for agriculture (we all know that without insects to pollinate, many crops would fail), but because insects and other invertebrates provide the foundation for many ecosystems. GWCT studies have looked into the importance of hedgerows, woodland, wildflowers and weeds in crops for farmland invertebrates, helping us to understand their potential in helping to shape a more balanced farmed environment in the future.

Soil health is a new focus for the government’s environment plan, and the GWCT’s Allerton Project has been contributing to our understanding of the soil itself by means of studying the effect of cover crops on earthworms, weed control and soil characteristics. Equally as important as this knowledge base itself is a good understanding of how to use it effectively in developing policy and delivering benefits. In other words, not only doing the science, but also working with people and understanding how to use it for the best. Two papers from Allerton last year addressed just that.

An important aspect to inform future environment policy is understanding how well current approaches are working. To this end, several GWCT studies have looked at the relationship between habitats that are already supported by agri-environment schemes (AES), and the wildlife they can benefit.

Building on previous work studying how yellowhammers, swallows and wild bees use field margins that are planted for wildlife, this year our studies investigated three different pipistrelle bat species and added to our knowledge of how best to provide good feeding habitat for them on farmland. One GWCT paper from 2019 revealed that, of the top 18 species preferred by wild bees, only two appear in current AES flower mixes designed to provide nectar or support pollinators. This is an example of how basic science can help improve the effectiveness of our conservation efforts.

Game management in the uplands is the focus of our research team based in Teesdale, who published many papers last year – some continued to report the findings of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, helping to draw the enormous body of work together. Last year’s papers present the beneficial effect of reinstating grouse moor management on waders such as curlew and golden plover, as well as exploring the cumulative effect of buzzard predation on grouse.

However, Langholm is just one aspect of the research carried out by the GWCT uplands team, whose papers this year have helped inform best practice in strongylosis management, explore the conservation importance of tick control, and improve our understanding of cryptosporidiosis. Long-standing research into mountain hares came to fruition with a better understanding of how grouse moors can affect their numbers.

The effect of pheasant releasing on woodland remains a topic of interest, with a better understanding this year of the longer-term effects of release pens. This paper reinforced GWCT advice to stick to density guidelines, adding that pens should not be moved within woodland, to protect woodland plants. These guidelines help ensure that the effect of game management on woodlands as a whole is positive. Research studying the differences between woodland rides as a result of game management built on those principles in 2019.

Our Fisheries team based at East Stoke on the River Frome continue their yearly tagging and monitoring work, contributing to the longest-running data set available in fisheries research. This has helped our understanding of how river characteristics can affect very young trout and salmon, decreasing either their chance of survival from the egg to the juvenile stage, or the likelihood that they will survive their adult years at sea and return to their home river to breed.

With salmon and trout populations falling and no sign of this trend reversing, adding to our knowledge of how we might manage the river environment to support these fish is critical. Addressing the threats they face at sea is likely to be more challenging than adjusting our home river management to give the young fish an advantage, and as with many conservation situations, every little may help.

The possible impact of predation on prey species is another topic that the GWCT has been working to understand for many years. 2019 saw the publication of several papers in this area. By developing novel techniques to analyse the impact of predator control on fox numbers, our research has helped clarify how and when it may be best used.

With the unexpected revocation of the General Licence early in 2019, a paper examining the possible effects of magpie predation was timely and useful in our understanding of how magpies can impact songbird numbers. This information may be especially useful to inform the reviews that have followed, particularly as there is a lack of evidence for some species on which to base such important legislation.

Nicholas Aebischer contributed once more to the most recent ‘population estimates of birds in Great Britain and the UK’, to be published this month in the journal British Birds. The fourth in this series, with the last one released in 2013, these papers provide an essential snapshot of how breeding birds are (or are not!) thriving here. It is relied upon by other scientists, giving a clear signpost of the trends seen for different bird species and groups.

With some of our large projects such as LIFE Waders for Real still collecting data, and the invaluable long-term data sets from the Sussex Study and our Fisheries team continuing to build, the science published so far this year and last is just a taste of more to come.

More info about these and our other ongoing research projects will be available in our Annual Reviews - which can be purchased here.

Summaries of many of these papers are available at here.

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