Saturday, 20 August 2011

Earthworms are the farmers new weapon against climate change threat

The results of a major 4-year catchment-scale research project in Leicestershire that was supported by Heritage Lottery Funding has revealed that 40 per cent of farmers involved in the study now recognise the signs of climate change and are ready to respond.
Dr Chris Stoate, Head of Research at the GWCT’s Allerton Project farm, explains, “Our research shows that farmers can make a huge difference in helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. When fields are not ploughed the soil condition is improved naturally by the tunnelling of earthworms, which absorb water at a rate of four to ten times that of fields without worm tunnels. This in turn helps the soil to take up water during storms and retain it during drought. It also helped to buffer our stream from flooding during heavy rain.”

The study, which was carried out by researchers from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, on its research farm at Loddington and in the surrounding catchment, is developing techniques that can mitigate the effects of both drought conditions and flooding that have an impact on the wider public as well as farmers themselves.

One of the key recommendations for farmers is to cut back on traditional ploughing in favour of minimum tillage in order to harness the natural army of eco-friendly microbes and earthworms that inhabit the soil. This improves the capacity of the soil to take up water during storms and retain it during drought.

The study, which involved the whole stream catchment surrounding the GWCT’s Allerton Project farm, also discovered other impacts that climate change could have on farming and wildlife as well as on a household level. It even suggested that it might mean taking on board some approaches from the past. The study revealed, for example, the way in which we all take clean water for granted and that potentially the concept of a ‘water footprint’ could be used positively to make consumers more aware of their demand on water resources.

Dr Stoate explains, “In the 1930s each person used about 15 litres of water per day. Today, we each use about 150 litres of water per day. Each litre of water consumed amounts to about 55kg of CO2 per person over the course of the year. Large additional amounts of water are used to produce food and other goods in this country and abroad, and the concept of a water footprint as a basis for a labelling system, was met positively by people living in the catchment that were involved in our study. This was mainly as it raised awareness about water consumption and the threat that this posed.”

Government farming Minister, Jim Paice, MP, in a personal tribute to this study said, “The Defra Business Plan recognises that the environment is the natural foundation on which our society and economy are built and that our long-term prosperity, economic success and quality of life are enhanced by our environment. As this study highlights, if we use and manage our natural assets in a sustainable way they will continue to meet not only our needs such as for energy, sustenance, fresh water and fertile soils, but the needs of future generation.”

A recently published book arising from the study titled Exploring a Productive Landscape, describes this wide ranging research project that has involved the GWCT’s wildlife-friendly research farm as well as the local catchment community. The research underlines the huge demands that are now being made on our countryside to provide food, water and fuel in the light of a growing population as well as the increasing threat posed by climate change and the depletion of our natural resources. It also highlights much of the significant research that has been carried out by the Trust on the farm over the past 20 years in an effort to boost wildlife populations while increasing crop yields. It offers positive solutions to many of the threats and challenges that we face over the coming years.

The full results of this fascinating study are available through the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust for £10.00 at Proceeds will be used to continue to develop this catchment community project.

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