19 June 2015

Digging for victory with healthy soils

A deep soil pit in a field of Spring Barley enabled Alastair Leake to explain the layers of the soil, the significance of burrowing, feeding and casting of earthworms and their ability to help withstand extreme weather eventsThe United Nations has declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils with the aim of helping to raise awareness of why soils are important for food security and the environment. By its very nature without this essential element we would not be able to grow food, provide wildlife habitats, prevent flooding or have clean water.

Celebrating this theme, the National Farmers Union (NFU) together with the GWCT’s Allerton Project in Leicestershire, held a thought-provoking event with a range of experts explaining the latest research findings on soil research as well as describing how cultivation and innovation is helping farmers lead the way to achieve healthy soils for the benefit of the environment, crop yields and people.

Attended by nearly 50 farmers, NFU members, industry advisers, researchers and policy makers, including representatives from Defra and the Environment Agency, this important event was chaired by Minette Batters, deputy president of the NFU who started by saying “The Year of Soils is a vital opportunity for the NFU to showcase some of the amazing work that farmers are doing.”

Similarly, Phil Jarvis of GWCT started his presentation by stating “Farmers do a lot for soil and the environment and don’t shout loud enough about it.” This view was mirrored by all the expert speakers who presented their current research findings on managing soil which included Dr Alastair Leake from the GWCT Allerton Project, Dr Ron Stobart from NIAB TAG and Ian Matts from Yara. In addition, Richard Bramley, farmer and NFU Environment Forum member, gave a detailed insight into the challenges and benefits of managing his soil sustainably from personal experience on his own farm in Yorkshire.

The audience heard how research and current practice was working to overcome problems such as soil erosion, compaction and flooding by adopting emerging techniques such as strip and min-till, to more established practices such as cover crops, buffer strips and beetle banks .

The discussions which followed focussed on the future challenges facing soil management including what farmers, researchers and policy makers should do to bring agriculture back into the limelight. Dr Alastair Leake from the GWCT’s Allerton Project highlighted how soil management can make farmers resilient to climate change by adding, “Changes to cultivation techniques can help to build a resilient soil, that can withstand more frequent and exceptional weather events such as rainfall and drought. This will be vital as we go forward so that we can continue to farm our food efficiently while caring for the environment.”

Minette Batters, summed up at the end of the event saying "The year of the soils is a vital opportunity for the NFU to showcase some of the amazing work that farmers are doing. Soil is the most important asset of any farm, and it's very clear from the farmers here today that it's their absolute priority to look after it.

“This event at the Allerton Project has shown how food production works in harmony, as well as enhancing the farmed environment. I am therefore delighted that this government has committed to a long term food and farming strategy. This is essential if we are going to have sustainable, resilient farms that can manage climate change whilst continuing to produce food and care for our treasured environment." Mrs Batters, went on to add, "With a UK population of 60 million people, set to rise to 70 million in the next decade, food and farming needed to be at the heart of Government and that the A in Defra should once again stand for agriculture.”

The afternoon session involved a tour of the Allerton Project Farm to see research in action which stimulated much conversation about the differencing soil management practices utilised across the diverse soil types in the UK. Sited amongst the productive fields were examples of machinery – Sumo, Dale and Claydon drills that are used by the Allerton project to direct drill seeds into the untilled land. A deep soil pit in a field of Spring Barley enabled Alastair Leake to explain the layers of the soil, the significance of burrowing, feeding and casting of earthworms and their ability to help withstand extreme weather events

Richard Barnes, from seed suppliers Kings was also on hand to explain work on cover crops and how these are an important part of the mix to ensure soil health. Top of the cover crops with Richard are currently radish, vetch, rye, oats, phacelia and buckwheat. These seed mixes produce a diverse range of soil crops which in-time reduce soil compaction and improve structure.

Concluding the day, Jim Egan from the Allerton Project and co-ordinator of the event said, “There are lots of farmers doing good things and they are learning about new techniques and challenges all the time. But to pull this all together we need practical research and demonstration and we saw that in ample amounts at this event today.”

The NFU and GWCT are grateful for the sponsorship provided by Yara and Kings.

END

Photocaption: A deep soil pit in a field of Spring Barley enabled Alastair Leake to explain the layers of the soil, the significance of burrowing, feeding and casting of earthworms and their ability to help withstand extreme weather events.

Notes to editors:

National Farmers Union: The NFU is the voice of British farming and provides professional representation and services to its farmer and grower members.

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) is an independent wildlife conservation charity which has carried out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife since the 1930s. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats and we lobby for agricultural and conservation policies based on science. We employ 14 post-doctoral scientists and 50 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming, fish and statistics. We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies. The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse. For Information, contact: Morag Walker – Head of Media, Telephone – 01425-652381 (direct 01425-651000) Mobile – 07736-124097 www.gwct.org.uk

GWCT’s Allerton Project farm, Loddington, Leicestershire - Farmland ecology research in the 1970s and 1980s carried out by the Trust has resulted in the majority of wildlife enhancing measures that we now see in today’s agri-environment schemes. The Trust’s 333 ha Allerton Project at Loddington is a mixed arable and livestock farm that is unique within the UK in having developed a wide range of practical ways of restoring wildlife and integrating this approach into the farm business. The result of these wildlife-friendly farming techniques is the dramatic increases in wild game, farmland birds and other wildlife. As well as research, the Trust runs a range of courses which aim to bring together the wider aspects of biodiversity and wildlife conservation to encapsulate all the important aspects of environmental management.

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