Applied Ecology/Agro-Ecological Systems
Today's countryside has, worldwide, been shaped and maintained largely by farming activities, and most semi-natural areas are managed with agricultural production as a prime motivation. However, changes in farming practices have reduced the value to wildlife of many farms.
The first comprehensive national discussion on agri-ecological management to increase farm biodiversity in the United Kingdom was signalled by a conference organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group of Agricultural and Conservation Organisations. This took place in July 1969 at the Silsoe Agricultural College, Bedfordshire. For the first time farmers and conservationists met to make bridges between the two extremes of land management. The weekend conference focused on the management of Pendley Grove Farm, a collection of farmed fields made available for delegates to suggest proposals to couple arable and livestock farming with management objectives in order to increase wildlife. A report on the meeting, 'Farming & Wildlife: A study in compromise', was published in 1971 (Barber, 1971). A most important event following the Silsoe weekend took place in Dorset on the 25th-26th July 1970. Here a 320-acre enterprise, East Farm, Hammoon in the Blackmore Vale, near Sturminster Newton, was surveyed in even greater detail than Pendley Grove, and the study in reconciliation between wildlife and farming widened to include forestry and hunting, as well as freshwater fishing interests.
At East Farm a fundamental issue, which arose at Silsoe, again came well to the fore in the Dorset discussions. It's an issue of applied ecology which relates to the 'strategy' of planning a farm for wildlife interests, in contrast to a series of ad hoc measures carried out by a farmer, which might suitably be referred to as 'tactics'.
There is a wealth of difference between a number of unrelated actions on a farm, such as leaving hedges for the sake of leaving hedges (however desirable the retention of any hedge might be) and the planting of an odd clump of trees to improve the view, and an integrated conservation plan for a farm based on a full understanding of how to provide the most valuable and varied habitats. For it is very desirable that there is a connection between the various physical features. Mammals, many birds - particularly game birds - and some insects need to use connecting lines, travel-ways, flyways, stepping stones, between isolated parcels of trees; and hedges in most instances, wild patches become much more valuable as habitats if they form uninterrupted links.
Reference was made at the Dorset meeting to the extraordinary amount of activity, which the Silsoe conference had triggered off and which coincided with all the publicity attaching to European Conservation Year in 1971. There was now, it was said, a steadily increasing interest in planting patches of woodland, shelter belts and field corners, and one prominent agriculturalist stated that he had no doubt that farmers would be planting thousands of acres throughout the country during the next decade. However, the sponsors of the conferences were not so optimistic. It seemed pertinent to ask whether the trees would always be planted in the most appropriate place and whether full acknowledgement would be made of the need to ensure, farm requirements permitting, that this relatively new concept of providing connecting ecological links will be applied.
In many cases a series of unrelated actions on a farm was all that was hoped for, but the importance of this particular issue of integrating physical features was an important matter of applied ecology. It was considered to be a vital part of the conservation message going out to the farming and land-owning community.
In fact it took another twenty years before the Silsoe proposals developed as an integrated government policy, which was set out in the 1994 UK Biodiversity Action Plan. In the meantime pilot schemes had been organised and several national programmes were developed, but the loss of farmland habitats continued, with government subsidies for drainage and hedgerow removal. Between 1984 and 1990 there was a net loss of 23% of hedges (about 130,000 km) in Great Britain. The net loss of hedges was the result of a combination of hedge removal and hedge degradation, and it occurred despite the planting/ regeneration of about 50,000 km of hedges. In addition to the reduction in the extent of this important linear habitat, there was also a lost of quality. Between 1978 and 1990, on average one plant species was lost from each 10 metres of hedge, an 8% loss of plant species diversity.
Nevertheless, at the time the strategy was published, Silsoe and other initiatives had resulted in several integrated farming and conservation programmes initiated by government agencies. These were initiatives in applied ecology to integrate agricultural and environmental objectives designed to conserve and enhance wildlife habitats in the farmed countryside. They were targeted at selected areas and habitats to help secure biodiversity objectives.
Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) were run by the territorial agricultural departments, this scheme was targeted on areas of high conservation value. It provided incentives to farmers and crofters to protect and enhance environmental features of their land and to prevent damage to landscapes and wildlife, which might result from some types of agricultural intensification.
A ‘Countryside Stewardship Scheme’ for England and ‘Tir Cymen’ a payment by results scheme being trialled in Wales (run by the Countryside Commission and the Countryside Council for Wales), were pilot projects offering a flexible system of incentives to farmers and land managers to conserve, enhance and in some instances recreate, selected important landscapes and their wildlife habitats in England and Wales.
The ‘Wildlife Enhancement Scheme’ aimed to develop a new and more positive working relationship with owners and occupiers of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and to make full use of their land management skills and experience of local conditions. English Nature launched this three-year pilot scheme in 1991. By the end of March 1993 the scheme had been extended to cover four areas. An essential part of the scheme required land managers to record what they had done on the land in a way that could be used by English Nature. This information was then used to fine tune management practices in the light of experience to achieve the best results for wildlife. Under the scheme a straightforward management agreement and management plan was agreed with English Nature in return for a fixed annual payment, which reflected the additional costs of managing the SSSI for wildlife. Provision was also made for fixed cost works such as fencing which are needed to allow grazing for conservation purposes.
The ‘Farm and Conservation Grant Scheme’ was run by the territorial agricultural departments. The scheme allowed grants to be paid to farmers for capital works, which have an environmental value including traditional field boundaries and shelterbelts, and heather management.
The ‘Farm Woodland Premium Scheme’ was also run by the territorial agricultural departments, this scheme offered incentives to farmers to plant and maintain primarily broad-leaved woodlands on farms, thereby contributing to biodiversity and providing other environmental benefits.
The ‘Hedgerow Incentive Scheme’ was run by the Countryside Commission, this scheme offered incentives to secure the long-term well being and environmental value of threatened hedgerows, through the re-introduction of beneficial management.
In addition to these economic incentives, free technical advice was made available for farmers on pollution and conservation issues, in the form of on-farm visits and Codes of Practice, for example on ‘Good Upland Management’ and on ‘Good Agricultural Practice for the Protection of Water, Air and Soil’. Opportunities for enhancing biodiversity include encouraging the use of traditional, long established livestock breeds that are adapted to the climate and topography of each region. Where necessary, regulations were also used to provide essential environmental safeguards, in connection with, for example, the approval of pesticides and the storage of slurry and agricultural fuelled oil. Underpinning all these initiatives was the Government's R&D programme, designed to improve understanding of the complex interactions between UK agriculture and the environment (it received £67 million in 1992/3).
All of these initiative appeared in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. This was an important outcome from the Rio Environment Summit of 1992 and in effect it set out how ecology should be applied and integrated with agricultural production. The strategy emphasised the significance for eco-agricultural systems in relation to the fact that almost 77% of the UK land surface is in farming use. Agriculture is, therefore, a key determinant of the Nation’s biodiversity, and farmers and landowners are key partners in implementing measures to further biodiversity.
Within the relatively small area of the UK there is a great diversity of farming types. This reflects a varied climate, geology, soils and local traditions. Each farming type makes its own contribution to biodiversity, and many habitats and species depend upon traditional agricultural practices for their survival. Agricultural habitats may be highly diverse at the local level. Others may have relatively low local biodiversity, but nonetheless support unusual assemblages of species, which are nationally or internationally rare, and therefore contribute to global biodiversity.
Maintaining biodiversity can have commercial benefits for agriculture. For example, biological pest control - which has been developed through an understanding of ecosystems and predator/prey relationships - has in some cases allowed a reduction in the use of pesticides. An attractive countryside, rich in wildlife, is also a basis for farm diversification through the growth in farm tourism, and can bring benefits to the wider rural economy.
Biodiversity has played a vital role in enabling agriculture to develop to its current productive state. Genetic variation has allowed plant breeders to select desirable characteristics and manipulate plant character and productivity. Maintaining genetic diversity will be a significant factor in the stability and future development of agriculture, while modern biotechnology is likely to lead to the cultivation of new crops and crop strains for food and industrial use. On the other hand, a reduction in the variety of crops and livestock may result in greater vulnerability to disease and pest attack.
With regards threats and opportunities, the UK biodiversity strategy singled out three main concerns:
- the continuing loss and fragmentation of habitats such as chalk grassland, heather moorland, hay meadows and wetlands, as a result of such factors as intensified farming practices, land drainage and abstraction of water and road construction;
- the loss of habitats, linear features such as hedgerows, field margins and ditches, and individual species resulting from neglect or abandonment, and from the decline of traditional forms of management as they become increasingly uneconomic and difficult to sustain;
- damage to soils, water and ecosystems caused by inappropriate use of fertilisers and pesticides and atmospheric pollution.
Biodiversity is enhanced by policies, which encourage land management practices, which produce benefits for wildlife. The aim of such policies is to:
- protect and maintain existing wildlife features and habitats, which are important for biodiversity;
- enhance the wildlife value of farmland, which is of low biodiversity at present;
- take advantage of opportunities to establish new, permanent areas of conservation value, especially when identifying alternative uses for agricultural land.
Opportunities for enhancing biodiversity include:
- recognising and strengthening those regional and local farming and land management practices that enhance the national diversity of flora and fauna, habitats, landscapes, historical features and character, and which will help to strengthen links between land use and local community identity;
- improving livestock management to minimise pollution from wastes and establishing stocking densities on moors, heaths and semi-natural grasslands which are related more closely to the environmental carrying capacity of the land;
- improving crop management to reduce the need for fertilisers and pesticides;
- encouraging the use of traditional, long established livestock breeds and crop varieties, which are adapted to the climate, and topography of each region;
- recognising the importance of those traditional skills and practices used by those who manage land, and upon which many valued habitats depend.
- introducing greater diversity on the farm, for example through the encouragement of reversion of arable land to pastoral use in appropriate areas and the wider use of rotations in arable farming;
- maintaining hedges, where possible and appropriate to the area concerned;
- withdrawing from productive agriculture altogether in selected areas and allowing natural succession to take its course.
This broad review sets out scope of the field of agro-ecological systems. Updates are required from the 1994 baseline with regards, legislation, policy, strategy and examples of operational management.