Water Friendly Farming project
Location: Eye Brook and Stonton Brook headwaters (and the Barkby Brook in the headwaters of the adjacent Soar river basin)
Lead Organisation/s: The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust; the Freshwater Habitats Trust.
Funding Sources: The Catchment Restoration Fund through the Environment Agency, Syngenta, Regional Flood & Coastal Committee
Almost all lowland freshwater rivers, streams and ponds have been degraded by diffuse pollution from farmland activities, run-off from roads, industry and urban inputs including sewage works. Three quarters of rivers in England and Wales fail to meet the minimum legal standards set for a healthy river set by the EU’s Water Framework Directive. In the Welland catchment, only 6/33 water bodies qualify as in ‘Good’ status, with the Stonton and Eye Brooks the highest priority water bodies for WFD improvements.
The Water Friendly Farming project in Leicestershire is a research and demonstration project assessing the effectiveness of measures to protect freshwater habitats and the ecosystem services they provide in the rural environment, whilst maintaining the profitability of the farm businesses. Overall, the project aims to offer practical solutions to farmers to reduce the impact of farming practices on water.
Beginning in 2010, the WFF project aims to provide answers to three key water and land management questions:
- Can we protect and increase freshwater biodiversity without impinging on farm profitability?
- Can we reduce diffuse water pollution?
- Can we hold back water to help reduce downstream flooding?
From 2011 to 2013 the project created a detailed physical, chemical and biological baseline description of the water environment – ponds, streams and ditches – in the three study catchments.
In 2014 trial mitigation measures were implemented to hold back sediments, nutrients and water, and increase a variety of freshwater wildlife across the landscape. This included settlement ponds, stream-side fencing to reduce livestock access to streams, woody debris dams, introducing soil and nutrient management techniques to reduce runoff, and the provision of soil and nutrient management advice to farmers. Most recently, permeable dams have been created to control flood peaks downstream. Data are collected at the base of each catchment, including flow, sediment, nutrients and pesticides. In addition, aquatic plants and invertebrates are surveyed at 240 sites across the study area. Monitoring continues in order to test how effective this combination of measures is at the landscape scale, and lessons are continually shared with others through the Allerton Project’s knowledge exchange activities, Catchment Sensitive Farming and other initiatives.
The project shows that, as in most of England, clean water is scarce in the landscape with only a small proportion of the study area’s streams, ponds and ditches remaining unpolluted.
Using wetland plants as an indicator of freshwater biodiversity, the project has also shown that landscape scale biodiversity can be restored by creating new small-scale freshwater habitats. This is one of the first demonstrations of a landscape-wide increase in freshwater biodiversity as a result of land management measures, and is also notable for its rapidity, occurring immediately (i.e. in the first year after the installation of the new habitats). It further emphasises the unexpectedly large role of ponds and small wetlands in maintaining freshwater biodiversity at a landscape scale.