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Key Speakers Debate Agro Ecology Issues at NIAB

02 August 2008

The impact of recent agricultural changes from the ecologist’s perspective was debated in a conference with leading experts hosted by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany.

It was entitled: “Changes in land use; does this relate to CAP reform and what are the agro-ecology repercussions?” The event was supported by the British Ecological Society under the auspices of the Agricultural Ecology Special Interest Group.

Organiser Dr Lydia Smith structured the day to consider the balance between protecting the environment and producing food, or other agricultural products.  The group considered what farmers could do to safeguard or actively augment resources needed by other plants and wildlife sharing agricultural land. Birds and insects were a particular focus, whose existence and needs may be at odds with some agricultural approaches.
She said: “This conference provided a timely opportunity to examine the impact of the many recent changes in agriculture and those projected in the future. These include changes in the CAP, set-aside, climate change and new uses for crops such as biofuel. Delegates and speakers represented a cross section of stakeholders, including farmers, industry, those driving environmental schemes such as English Nature, academic researchers, plant breeders and specialist organisations, such as the British Trust for Ornithology.”

Controversial data was presented by Dr David Kleijn, from the Centre for Ecosystem Studies, Wageningen, in his presentation entitled: “Biodiversity conservation in changing agricultural landscapes – lessons from the past, suggestions for the future.”

He described the catastrophic effect on bird numbers and diversity following field drainage and mechanisation in the Netherlands, which allows early cuts of meadows used by nesting birds. Dr Kleijn pointed out that there was no prescriptive agro-environmental scheme common to all EU countries; they can each select environmental targets that are considered to be most important or interesting nationally and this may not help in tackling some of the key areas of concern. He believes that these schemes are especially ineffective in halting the decline of some rare and red-list species.

Dr Alex Nichols, from Natural England, spoke about CAP and farm stewardship schemes, focusing mainly on the East of England.  Within this region, he said that schemes clearly need to be adapted to suit the ecology and conditions of the local area.  Farmers' interest in schemes has gathered momentum over the past years with more than 60% uptake by those in East Anglia.

Neal Boughton, from Technology Crops International, reviewed how land was used in the UK according to crop, and outlined the key business drivers that had an impact on cropping choice. Taking sugar beet as one example, he said that the sheer weight and volume of the harvested crop meant that transport to processing plants must be a major consideration now that fuel costs have risen.  Fields and conditions in the South West of England that might otherwise be ideal for beet cultivation are now too far from processors based in Central and Eastern England to be viable. 

NIAB scientist Dr Fiona Leigh spoke on “The Smart Carbohydrate Centre – new biotechnology approaches for crop development and products”. This innovative project is looking at focussed development of crops for very specific qualitative characteristics. New varieties emerging from this research will potentially provide not only new products, including non-food or neutraceuticals, but varieties with enhanced characters in terms of nitrogen use-efficiency and reduced need for other agro-chemical inputs.
Dr Gavin Siriwardena’s presentation, from the British Trust for Ornithology, was entitled: “Filling the ‘hungry gap’”, highlighting a period from around February, when young birds are at risk from starvation, even though they have made it through what many would consider is the worst of the winter.  Some bird species suffer worse than others and should be targeted in schemes aimed to replace those resources that have been lost from the landscape.

Dr Vince Lea, an independent consultant, spoke on “Invertebrate food sources in field margins and headlands; the case for grass variety choice”, describing how invertebrates may also suffer from a shortage of suitable food during key parts of their life cycle.  Initially it was thought that the choice of cultivated varieties of grass sourced from outside of the UK were responsible for the very low numbers of butterflies and moths found in grassy headlands of fields. These areas are being planted by many farmers to enhance biodiversity, so this was disappointing. Results suggest a paucity of nector sources was the key limiting factor.

Dr Smith added: “The meeting on 18 July was very well received by the delegates and there was very lively discussion following presentations. In addition, there were several interesting posters and a display of potential crops supplied by plant breeder John Bingham, which could be considered to fill the ‘hungry gap’ identified by Gavin. This meeting was the first in a number of events that the Agri-Ecology SIG plan to run in the future through a new committee.”

Further information is available from Dr Lydia Smith or on 01223 342242, or through press consultant Ellee Seymour on 01353 648564, or 07939 811961.

British Ecological Society