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Doubt over funding for major research project sparks concern among Norfolk farmers

Prof Kevin Hiscock explains the water monitoring equipment to visitors to the DTC project at Salle Farms. Picture: SIMON FINLAY.

Prof Kevin Hiscock explains the water monitoring equipment to visitors to the DTC project at Salle Farms. Picture: SIMON FINLAY.

A government funding review has cast doubts over the future of a £2.8m environmental research project – sparking concern among Norfolk farmers who value the “huge wealth of information” it is providing.

Kevin Hiscock, professor of environmental sciences at the UEA, speaks to farmers at the Frontier Agriculture meeting at Honingham Thorpe Farms. Picture: Chris HillKevin Hiscock, professor of environmental sciences at the UEA, speaks to farmers at the Frontier Agriculture meeting at Honingham Thorpe Farms. Picture: Chris Hill

The Demonstration Test Catchments (DTC) project is a Defra-funded initiative working in three river catchments – the Wensum in Norfolk, the Eden in Cumbria and the Avon in Hampshire.

The Norfolk project has been based at the Salle Estate near Reepham since 2010, generating data on the impact of farm pollutants on watercourses, and the effectiveness of mitigation measures such as changing cultivation practices.

Kevin Hiscock, professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia, who is leading the project, said he had been told that Defra would withdraw the funding at the end of March, so he was seeking new sources of cash.

But a Defra spokesman said the funding was under review and no decision had yet been made on whether it would continue in the department’s 2019 budgets, adding: “We have made a significant investment in DTCs over several years, and are currently working with DTC partners to review the work done to date as well as the projects’ future directions.”

That financial uncertainty was met with dismay at a farmers’ meeting at Honingham Thorpe Farms near Norwich, where Prof Hiscock said the scheme at Salle still had local funding from agronomy firm Frontier Agriculture and the Morley Agricultural Foundation, based near Wymondham.

“That will help us continue the soil sampling until September 2019, but the running of the monitoring stations is the expensive part and that will finish in March unless we find some more funds,” he said.

Among the farmers at the meeting was Honingham Thorpe farm manager Jamie Lockhart, who said any potential withdrawal of funding was at odds with the environmental priorities laid out by Defra secretary Michael Gove as part of his plans for a “Green Brexit”.

“One of Michael Gove’s ‘public goods’ is soil health, so it makes no sense for his department to cut funding for this,” he said. “The kind of information coming from this project is vital for us, so it would be a shame if we were to lose it. There is a huge wealth of information there.

“If we are not careful we will lose that resource, the equipment will disappear and we will look back in a few years’ time and say: ‘That information could have been really valuable to us’.”

The Defra spokesman said most of the project’s funding this year was “specifically available so it can help to support new environmental policy for once we leave the European Union”.

FARMING INSIGHTS

Prof Hiscock outlined some of the Salle DTC project’s key findings while speaking to farmers at the Honingham Thorpe meeting.

He said the running costs of £2.8m over the last seven years included £700,000 to install equipment such as bankside monitoring kiosks, which analyse how nitrate levels in the soil respond to cultivation changes, and how pesticide and sediment levels in river streams react after rainstorms.

One trial of an oil radish cover crop – allied to a shallow, non-inversion cultivation regime – had reduced nitrate losses from the soil during the winter by as much as 88pc, he said.

“For us as researchers it has been interesting to observe how farmers, based on their experience of cover cropping and the establishment of the following crop, have changed their whole system,” said Prof Hiscock. “They no longer do any ploughing at Salle unless there is compaction on the headlands. That has been a major outcome of the farm engaging with the DTC project.

“The DTC project has been good for knowledge exchange. It is carried out on a working farm, so other farmers say if something works for them, it could work for me.”

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