Agriculture is a major emitter of carbon to the atmosphere especially via the use of nitrogen fertilizers. Some landscape units, particularly floodplains have the capacity to deliver multiple productive services without artificial nutrients if managed appropriately. Land managers are currently frustrated by tensions within agri-environmental policies that limit the efficient use of land. Specifically the restrictions placed on commercial producers by support measures, which many consider not to be beneficial to either the sustainability or the productivity of floodplain grassland. The substantial public resources currently consumed by agri-environmental support programmers could be much more efficiently deployed whilst simultaneously improving productivity, sustainability and a cleaner environment.

The field trial proposed here would aim to supply concrete evidence of the synergy between sustainability and production. The work would also aim to supply evidence for other services such as improvements in water quality, via the filtering effect of floodplains during flood events.

The project would consist of four independent experimental blocks sited on land in different ownerships and in separate catchments to trial alternative management strategies for the production of biomass whilst maximizing ecological resilience and interest. There has been no such trial to date to inform the development of agri-environmental policy. The need for such evidence is urgent in the context of the UK needing to re-evaluate and reformulate its policy post Brexit. The student would spend time working in the commercial world and the third sector in addition to time in a University setting. This diversity of environments would give produce broad transdisciplinary training for an environmental scientist.

The trial would specifically test the effect of harvest date on the value of production (biomass, digestibility and protein content), the resilience of the sward (species diversity and the nutrient budget (soil available pools.) Further treatments would explore the feasibility and potential benefits of harvesting twice rather than once per year, using the same set of benefits. The studentship would aim to build on this natural science approach with a social science component that considered the acceptability of new agri-environment options to different categories of stakeholder.

Further Details

The research topic aims to make efficient use of resource by capitalising on excess nutrients currently washed into floodplains, which are viewed as pollution, but which could be transformed into useful agricultural produce whilst simultaneously improving the environment in terms of water quality, greenhouse-gas balance and aesthetics. A major outcome could be the reduction of fertilizer use, which has substantial benefits to the farmer, environment and citizen alike. The topic extends beyond solutions to a perceived problem by including a social science element that to consider recommendations from an industrial perspective using stakeholder analysis.