Water Friendly Farming: The GWCT’s catchment sensitive farming research project

Professor Chris Stoate, Head of Research, The Allerton Project

Pond samplingThe Water Friendly Farming project follows a rigorous experimental design to test to what extent we can move towards Water Framework Directive targets for chemical and ecological status of water courses by adopting a range of mitigation methods that are:

  • Scientifically based
  • Practically grounded
  • Acceptable to farm businesses
  • Applied at the landscape scale

The project is based on three headwater catchments in Leicestershire, totalling nearly 3,000ha. It is a mixed farming area on clay soils, and farm businesses are variously owner occupied, tenanted and contract farmed. The project is nested within a range of initiatives across the Welland river basin, as part of the Welland Valley Partnership.

Data are being collected at three scales. Firstly, flow, nutrient and pesticide concentrations are being sampled continuously at the base of each of the three catchments. Secondly, nutrient concentrations are assessed twice each month for each of the sub-catchment tributaries. Thirdly, aquatic biodiversity (plants and invertebrates) and nutrient concentrations are surveyed annually at 237 sites across the entire study area.

Having established a strong baseline, mitigation measures are being put in place across the two ‘treatment’ catchments, the upper Eye Brook, and the upper Stonton Brook. These focus on earth dams in ditches, field drain interceptor ponds, and flood water wetlands, while in the Stonton catchment, habitat to enhance aquatic biodiversity is being enhanced through the creation of new ponds and woody debris dams. We are starting to work with farmers to improve soil and nutrient management within fields, aiming to implement management practices that will both improve yields and economic performance of farm businesses, and improve water quality at a range of scales.

The baseline data highlight the variability in the ecological quality of small headwater water bodies, with ponds and ditches being better, but also more variable than streams which have larger catchments and are influenced more by land use in the wider landscape. Base of catchment monitoring reveals the expected relation between rainfall, stream discharge and suspended sediment concentration, as runoff from arable land delivers sediment to watercourses. However, for phosphorus there is a considerable influence from rural sewage treatment works, with each of the sub-catchment tributaries having consistently highest concentration across the three main catchments.

We are currently developing this project further through the application of remote sensing data and post-graduate student projects enabling us to understand better the context in the wider landscape. We are working increasingly closely with participating farmers and will be sharing the results of the project with the wider farming community through our events at Loddington, and with updates on our blog.

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