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East Anglia Future 50

Norfolk farmer's DIY science project aims to reduce water pollution

PUBLISHED: 09:24 08 May 2019 | UPDATED: 10:15 08 May 2019

The Morley Farms clean water project. Pictured: Farm manager David Jones carries out his own nitrate testing for water collected from ditches and watercourses. Picture: Chris Hill

The Morley Farms clean water project. Pictured: Farm manager David Jones carries out his own nitrate testing for water collected from ditches and watercourses. Picture: Chris Hill

Chris Hill

A Norfolk farm aims to prove you don't need to be a scientific genius to conduct practical research which could improve water quality and reduce pollution.

The Morley Farms clean water project. Pictured: Farm manager David Jones inspects a ditch which has been allowed to become overgrown to slow water flow and trap sediment. Picture: Chris HillThe Morley Farms clean water project. Pictured: Farm manager David Jones inspects a ditch which has been allowed to become overgrown to slow water flow and trap sediment. Picture: Chris Hill

It is better known for hosting sophisticated crop trials, conceived by academics from the nation's top science institutes.

But the latest project at Morley Farms aims to prove that farmers don't need major grant funding or a PhD in microbiology to improve the quality of one of their most important resources - water.

The farm, near Wymondham, is the commercial arm of the The Morley Agricultural Foundation (TMAF), which hosts field-scale research and education projects with groups including NIAB (the National Institute of Agricultural Botany), along with major agronomy and agrochemical firms.

But farm manager David Jones says his Morley Clean Water Project is something that any farmer can do - and it could bring valuable real-world improvements without major investment.

The Morley Farms clean water project. Pictured: All the farm's ditches and watercourses have been digitally mapped. Picture: Morley FarmsThe Morley Farms clean water project. Pictured: All the farm's ditches and watercourses have been digitally mapped. Picture: Morley Farms

After using computer software to map all the farm's ditches and watercourses - some of which did not appear on standard maps - he has embarked on a water-sampling exercise, using cheap test bottles and sampling strips costing £20 for 100 which can indicate the level of nitrates and other chemicals.

This identifies potential problem areas which will then be investigated to assess what practical measures could be used to stop nitrates, phosphates and sediment finding their way into the county's waterways.

So far, those measures have included levelling banks alongside tracks, digging out drainage channels, or in some cases, leaving ditches to become overgrown to slow the movement of water and trap sediment.

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"The goal is that as farmers we want to make sure that the water that leaves the farm in our ditches is as clean as it was when it arrived here," said Mr Jones.

"We want to demonstrate simple straightforward interventions that anyone can do, with modest time and effort, which can make a big difference to water quality.

"People associate TMAF with "science" and big organisations like NIAB, the John Innes Centre and the UEA - people want to see that science and technology but we also just want people doing it. I mean, the things we can identify ourselves and do something to make a difference.

"There is a big disconnect between people doing research and people doing something practical. It does not need a degree or a lot of money.

"What I would hope is that this farm and this organisation can help people identify with that, taking research and concepts and ideas and linking it with practical farming."

Mr Jones has harnessed the help of the Norfolk Rivers Trust to find solutions to possible pollution hotspots - and the condition of ditches has become a particular focus.

"As farmers we want to dig ditches straight and get the water away as quick as we can," he said. "But, without flooding the fields, we want it to go a bit slower so it traps the silt rather than washing it all the way to Norwich.

"Nature wants to slow the water down so, by being a bit rubbish at clearing out the overgrown plants, and by not doing it all in one go, we don't create this super-highway to the sea.

"It needs intervention all the way to the sea, so it needs a lot of people working together. But if gradually everybody does their bit it could be a really good story."

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