24 July 2002

Biodiversity at no net cost

On Jan 1 this year a new

£3.5m sustainable arable

farming project started.

Andrew Swallow reports

from last weeks press

launch in Cambs

PUTTING biodiversity back into arable production, but without rewriting the rotation and at no net cost to the grower.

That is the aim of the £3.5m, five-year, Sustainable Arable Farming for an Improved Environment (SAFFIE) project, launched last week at the RSPBs Grange Farm in Cambs.

It is one of 13 sites across the country where simple, in-crop solutions to stem the decline in key indicator species are being investigated, linked with non-crop margin management.

"Nobody has done this before, putting the two things together," says project co-ordinator James Clarke, of ADAS.

Manipulating vegetation density, be it in the crop, or in the non-cropped field margin, to maximise biodiversity without compromising production efficiency is a key concept.

"It is about opening things up rather than having everything so thick that it is no good at all."

In winter wheat, wide rows and, in a separate crop, 4m x 4m drill misses are being investigated as ways to make the cropped environment more accessible to wildlife.

Current best ICM practice will be used on these crops, but separate trials will look at targeted weed and insecticide management techniques that could be used to boost biodiversity in future.

On non-cropped field margins three types of sown vegetation will be manipulated to determine the optimum environment for invertebrates and plants that will support foraging and nesting species.

Findings from the first two years in crop and margin work will be included into a third trial series in years 3-5 of the project, to determine the combined effect of the best biodiversity practices discovered. Ten sites, each with three fields of 5-10ha (12-25 acres) will be used.

"Just about everything that eats, leaps and sleeps is going to be monitored," says Mr Clarke.

Costs and possible yield impacts will be analysed throughout and related to biodiversity benefits. If there is a cost to growers in implementing the measures that are found to boost biodiversity, compensation could be sought under the "broad and shallow" umbrella recommended in the Curry Report, he says.

Just under half the funding comes from government under the LINK scheme, with the balance made up by a broad range organisations ranging from Syngenta to Safeway, either as cash or in kind in terms of scientists time working on the project, site provision or publicity. For example, the Crop Protection Association has committed £640,000 to the project, £300,000 as cash and the rest in kind.

"It is by far the biggest single project within the Voluntary Initiative," acknowledges CPAs Richard Trow-Smith. With government demanding results from the £11.9m Voluntary Initiative package soon (Arable, June 28), he is hopeful the project will deliver useful crop management messages well before the end of its five year term.

Mr Clarke says that is likely in autumn 2003 when the findings of the first two years results are analysed.

Throughout the project considerable effort will be put into demonstrating and promoting the results of SAFFIE to growers and advisors, and to the general public. The involvement of the RSPB, National Trust, Sainsbury and Safeway will help with that as each has access to a large "customer base" through inhouse magazines, he notes.

RSPB policy officer Darren Moorcroft echoes that. "We will be running updates in Birds Magazine and on our web-site." &#42

Conservation without cost? Monitoring the biodiversity benefit of wide-row wheat is a key part of a new £3.5m SAFFIE research project, says co-ordinator James Clarke (left) seen here with the RSPBs Roger Buisson and Richard Bradbury.

&#8226 Five-year, £3.5m research project.

&#8226 Boost biodiversity but maintain production efficiency.

&#8226 Winter wheat and crop margin management.

&#8226 Cover control key concept.

&#8226 Multi-funded, including £321,000 from HGCA.

&#8226 Biggest chunk of VI budget.

IACS forms might be changed to suit

At present growers deliberately missing patches with the drill to give ground nesting birds access to cropped areas would have to declare those areas on their IACS forms, says RSPBs Darren Moorcroft. However, if the practice proves to be beneficial, efforts would be made to get that requirement abolished. IACS forms could simply have a box to tick indicating whether such measures are used, which in turn could be a requirement to receive Mr Currys "broad and shallow" conservation payment. "What we are trying to come up with is things that are simple to administer. We do not want to complicate it," he stresses.