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Growers offered help with ‘water sensitive farming’ projects

12 July 2016

A renewed drive has been launched to convince farmers of the benefits of “water sensitive farming” – with funding available for projects to reduce erosion and pollution from agricultural land.

The soil is a farmer’s most precious possession – but it does no-one any good unless it stays in the field.

Erosion and run-off bring the twin problems of sediment and pollutants flowing into waterways, which are damaging to the environment and wasteful of valuable commercial resources.

So the industry, regulators, water companies and conservationists are working together to find ways to keep soil and water where they are needed most.

The idea of “water sensitive farming” is to promote stewardship on farms by making sure water is used efficiently in a way which meets environmental targets to sustain ecosystems, while ensuring growers are still able to farm productively.

This could include improve the efficiency of irrigation, protecting water courses with buffer strips and tree planting, cover crops, creating silt traps and slowing the flow of water running off fields into rivers.

The Norfolk Rivers Trust (NRT) has recently been part of a project to build a silt trap to stop run-off from a field at Saxthorpe, near Holt, where water from heavy rainfall had carried silt into the River Bure.

But it is also working more widely with government agencies, businesses and communities through WaterLIFE, a three-year EU-funded project to improve the health of the freshwater environment.

In East Anglia, the NRT is working with farmers to implement water sensitive farming and reduce silt and pollution, chiefly from phosphate fertilisers, running into the unique chalk streams in two catchments, Broadland and the Cam and Ely Ouse.

Alison Smyth, the trust’s farm adviser for the Broadland catchment, said: “With the water is soil, and attached to the soil is phosphates. Soil and phosphates are two really bad things for our beautiful chalk rivers.

“Our chalk streams are really clear, with gravelly bottoms where the fish spawn. Sediment will cover that up and the rivers are not healthy enough to keep scouring the sediment out. The second problem is the phosphates change the nutrient levels in the water, so the wrong plants grow and that changes the oxygen level in the water.

“Part of what we are trying to do is not just about physical changes, but working with farmers to think through their rotations and their cropping, and where their risks are, and do they need to have those riskier crops like sugar beet and potatoes.

“It’s also important to retain organic matter which acts like a sponge. Cover crops help with that, and with stopping bare earth being exposed to flash flooding in the winter.

“It is in-field craft as well, like where you are putting your tram lines. Farmers don’t like going across slopes, but when they are running downhill they act as absolute gullies for water so where they are is important.

“Within the WaterLIFE project we have got a budget for this sort of thing. It might be moving a gateway or putting in a bund or a silt trap.

“We want to talk to the guys on the tractors, who know how their fields work. The soil is their growing medium, so they want it in their field, not running down the road. They want it in the field, and we want to help them keep it there.”

Ed Bramham-Jones, the trust’s farm adviser for the CamEO (Cam and Ely Ouse) catchment, said: “It is about trying to look after the soils, so when we do get heavy downpours, to keep that water in the soil in the field, so the crop is using the water rather than seeing it running off into rivers and drinking water sources.

“You don’t really want to see bare soil. With sugar beet and potatoes you have got clear rows and as the work goes on throughout the season you have got constant movement of machinery going up and down in the gaps.

“The message we are trying to get across is that water sensitive farming can have many benefits, and there is independent advice available.”

Water sensitive farming tips.

The Norfolk Rivers Trust has suggested some general guidelines to help farmers manage their soil and water resources.

• Get to know your soils – not just the soil type, but the wide variety across your farm. Dig holes regularly to look at structure, wetness and stability. Understand each field’s soil risks and capability so you can make the most of its assets and protect its risks.

• Aim for high levels of organic matter to make soils more resilient giving better absorbency, workability, stability and yields.

• Avoid damage to soil structure by keeping machinery and livestock off wet soils. Reduce use of the plough; cultivate and drill in good time and at correct depths.

• Improve water infiltration by removing compaction at the correct depth through subsoiling or surface layer cultivations. Cultivate headlands and tramlines, and inter-row hoe to reduce erosion from wheelings.

• Protect watercourses by fencing stock out to give a clear wide margin. Provide drinkers fed by pasture pumps, install stock tracks to protect soils.

• Use cover crops to protect soils from erosion, improve organic matter and increase crop yields in subsequent years.

• Where needed, move gateways or create silt-traps to prevent soil run-off leaving a field and eventually polluting a watercourse. A small grant fund is available for contributing towards these type of works.

• Free, independent farm advisory visits are available to farmers in the Bure, Wensum and Yare catchments through water sensitive farming adviser Alison Smyth, who can be contacted on 07493 685906, and in the Wissey and Little Ouse and Thet catchments through adviser Ed Bramham-Jones on 07788 377617.

For more information on water sensitive farming, contact the Norfolk Rivers Trust on 01263 711299.

Source: Eastern Daily Press

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