Overview

Project Highlights:

 

  • Field trials of conservation-management relevance in a rare and threatened habitat
  • Working with a range of end-users
  • Interdisciplinary approach informing nature-conservation policy

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-environment programmes could be more efficiently deployed whilst simultaneously improved productivity and sustainability.

The field trial proposed here would aim to supply evidence of the synergy between sustainability and production. 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 biodiversity. 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 a 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 (plant 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.

 

 

Figure 1: Hay making in a floodplain meadow alongside the Thames.

Methodology

The main focus would be a randomised controlled trial of different cutting dates across replicate sites. Four sites in Beds, Bucks and Oxon, all local to Milton Keynes, would be visited regularly through the field season (May-September.) Botanical quadrats would be recorded each June, productivity measured and the nutrient content of soils and hay determined. The data would be analysed to investigate the impact of hay-cutting date on yield, forage quality and plant-community composition.

Land managers would be interviewed using semi-structured questionnaires to gather information on attitudes, constraints and preferences with regard to management. This information would be analysed in the context of current and proposed agri-environmental payment schemes.

The student would work in close liaison with a commercial farm, a wildlife trust and a municipal land manager to develop a broad view of meadow-management objectives and practice. They would attend practitioner workshops and relevant conferences each year to stay abreast of policy development.

Training and Skills

Students will be awarded CENTA2 Training Credits (CTCs) for participation in CENTA2-provided and ‘free choice’ external training. One CTC equates to 1⁄2 day session and students must accrue 100 CTCs across the three years of their PhD.

Botanical identification skills would be taught via several complementary approaches:

  • attendance at generic courses by the Field Studies Council
  • shadowing of botanists employed by the Floodplain Meadow Partnership (FMP)
  • participation in bespoke training courses designed for FMP ambassadors, led by consultants with particular expertise in grassland communities.

Laboratory skills would be taught by lab staff. The student would gain experience through observing and assisting with routine analysis before embarking on their own samples. Statistical analysis would be taught using the R package, initially via CENTA2-provided training, then supported via regular meetings of a peer-support group. Interviewing skills gained by observing postdocs in the field and attending OU training.

Timeline

Year 1: Collation of existing data. Development of botanical skills. Development of expertise in statistical analysis. Recording (with assistance as required) of botanical samples. Laboratory analysis of soils and forage. Attendance at one relevant practitioner workshop and one academic conference.

Year 2: Leading the botanical recording of sites, overseeing site management and application of treatments. Initial analysis of historical botanical data. Interviews with land managers. Further laboratory analysis and comparison of results with literature. Presentation of initial findings at a relevant meeting.

Year 3: Final survey of botanical samples. Final laboratory analysis. Integrating analysis of sward composition, productivity and forage quality. Thematic analysis of interview transcripts using NVivo. Attendance at meeting focused on agri-environmental policy. Drafting and submission of peer-reviewed paper. Thesis production.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

The fundamental research question was co-designed by FAI farms, who perceive the need for clear scientific evidence for how agricultural productivity responds to seasonality in a changing climate. The industrial partners (FAI farms, Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust and The Parks Trust) will each supply the land for experimental work and will be centrally involved in the design and management of the experimental treatments. Several of them have already fed into the proposal. The experiments would be replicated on land managed by a commercial operator, a private family farm, an environmental charity and a third-sector body to give the work rigour, resilience and reach across potential end-users.

Further Details

Please contact David Gowing (d.j.gowing@open.,ac.uk) and see www://floodplainmeadows.org for more information.

Applications must include: