Could wet farming and ‘paludiculture’ help solve the climate challenge in the Fens?
- Credit: Cambs Farms Growers
Pioneering 'wet farming' methods are among the ideas being trialled in the Fens to protect fertile peat soils – and help this food production powerhouse meet the challenge of climate change.
The possibility of utilising new techniques, known as paludiculture, in a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was one of the themes discussed at the "Tomorrow's Fenland" event at Park Farm in Thorney, Cambridgeshire.
Although covering less than 4pc of England's farmed area, the Fens produces more than 7pc of England's total agricultural production and is home to 13,000 different animal and plant species. But it is also a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.
While peatlands are a vast terrestrial carbon store, drained peatlands release their carbon, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and the Fens contains one of the UK's largest areas of lowland peat.
Paludiculture reduces greenhouse gas emissions by re-wetting drained peatlands, combined with continued biomass production under wet conditions
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Great Fen Project manager Kate Carver described the field-scale paludiculture trial now under way on a four-hectare plot within the Great Fen Project close to Peterborough. This is testing ways of growing innovative new crops, such as sphagnum moss and typha, for food, healthcare and industry through wet farming, as well as locking in carbon.
"We think this is the first pilot of its kind in the UK and we will be learning a lot from the monitoring work we are doing. We are hoping to start a ripple effect and we want farmers and growers to get involved in the possibilities and opportunities," she said.
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Dr Richard Lindsay of the University of East London said paludiculture could be a potential solution for some farms in the Fens.
But he stressed: "Wet farming doesn't seek to displace conventional farming - it's one of the other options to consider."
The event brought together more than 100 farmers, academics, conservationists and representatives from government agencies to discuss key issues ahead of the launch of the government's 25-year peatland strategy. The meeting heard that farmers are already growing different crops, reintroducing grazing livestock to farms and changing cultivation techniques as they respond to the challenge posed by climate change.
Host farmer Michael Sly said the challenge was to find "practical, workable solutions" that would deliver for the short and longer term.
"There are great opportunities for the agricultural industry to work with Defra, Natural England and other organisations on how to achieve 'net zero' carbon, make the best of our soils and capture and preserve our water," he said.
The event heard there is inadequate data on the distribution and extent of peat soils within the Fens, and how they have changed since their drainage.
Prof Chris Evans of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology said estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from peat could overestimate the losses from the Fens, if figures on the extent of peat were out of date.
Andrew Knaggs, arable production manager at G's, outlined steps the major salad and vegetable grower is taking to farm more productively, while managing soils and the environment. These include growing cover crops, using fixed-wing drones to analyse soil structures, utilising water probes to help control crop irrigation and introducing a flock of sheep.
Mr Knaggs said the aim was to have no bare soil at all over the winter period. He stressed the need to share best practice with neighbouring farmers and take a collaborative approach
Rob Wise, East Anglia environment adviser for the National Farmers' Union (NFU) welcomed the positivity and enthusiasm shown at the event but warned it would take time to deliver solutions - and those solutions would not "come cheap".
"I hope the forthcoming peatland strategy will recognise we are in a long-term game here," he said "We need to get accurate up to date data and we need to make sure we fund everything properly, reflecting the high value of current farm output from the Fens. There are no quick fixes.