Farms now cover almost half of the world’s land, placing farmers at the forefront of the fight against climate change and ecosystem destruction. If we are to speed up the transition to more sustainable food and farming systems, we believe land managers must be well equipped to measure their environmental, social and economic impacts because, as the phrase goes, ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’. That’s why our harmonised Global Farm Metric (GFM) seeks to measure the social and environmental impact of farms and empower land managers to make more sustainable choices. But what does this actually look like in practice? Try these three tests today for a brief snapshot of sustainability on your land.
Testing the rate water seeps into the soil can give a good indication of soil structure which can affect root penetration, water availability to plants and soil aeration. These properties can help increase biodiversity in the soil and produce a healthy crop, as well as reduce the risk of soil erosion which can contaminate nearby water courses. You can measure soil infiltration using the drainpipe test. This is best done a day or two after rainfall – testing on already saturated ground can be quite a challenge!
You will need:
- two short lengths of pipe 10 cm in diameter and 20 cm long
- a hammer or mallet
- a stopwatch
- 5 litres of water
- Drive the pipe halfway into the ground using the hammer or mallet, leaving 10 cm standing above the ground.
- Pour in roughly 800 ml of water to a depth of 10 cm.
- Start the stopwatch immediately and measure the time taken for water to drain into the soil.
- For light and medium soils (typically associated with ‘good’ health), it should take about 2-5 minutes for water to drain away.
- Areas with heavy clay soil and poorer structure can take 20 minutes or longer for the water to drain away.
How to improve:
- Consider the use of cover crops in the winter and planting an herbal lay with oat, lucerne, chicory and/or red clover which have deep tap roots that help break up compacted soil. Keeping soils productive can also make them more resistant to compaction, increase nitrogen fixation and soil organic matter.
- Avoid cultivation when soils are wet – this helps to keep existing aeration intact.
- Continue to monitor! This can help you find out what’s working for your land and what’s not.
Biodiversity is vital for ecosystem health and stability which can help increase resilience to climate change and bolster food security. There are two biodiversity surveys included in the GFM – farmland birds and butterflies – which are also used by Defra as key indicator groups for farmland biodiversity. The process for monitoring butterflies is based on the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme and is best done between April and September (for more on farmland bird counts, visit here).
- Identify a 1 km transect that you regularly visit.
- Record how many species of butterfly you can see (there are fantastic resources you can use to help identify different species and input into a national database).
- Give yourself a score of 20% for less than five species recorded; 40% for between 5 and 7 species; 80% for between 7 and 10 species; and 100% for 10 or more species recorded.
- A score of 50% indicates average biodiversity, 80 – 100% suggests an abundance of species diversity and 40% suggests significant improvements can be made.
How to improve:
- Avoid the use of pesticides and herbicides where possible – these can disrupt food chains and habitats for a variety of species. Rather than spraying off nettles, for example, try cutting back in March and/or October to help protect the habitats of a number of common butterfly larvae.
- Take a whole-farm approach – maximise the use of amenity or redundant areas to enhance habitats for insects and butterflies. This could include introducing some pollinator-friendly species to wild bird seed mixes, game covers and cover crops for late season pollen supplies.
Nearly all water systems are affected by man-made pollutants and by 2050 nearly half of the planet will face water scarcity. When water quality is poor, not only is aquatic life affected, but so is the health of surrounding ecosystems, environments and communities too. If you have a body of water on or near your land, monitoring water quality can help us to understand our impact on an ecosystem and ensure environmental standards are being met.
- Have a look at your water system in each season. What aquatic species are present? Record all species that are below the surface, emerging and floating.
- Note which species are present out of fish, frogs, toads, aquatic birds and plants.
- Scoring is based on the number of ‘yes’ responses to each type of species – 0% for no ‘yes’ responses, 20% for 1, 40% for 2, 60% for 3, 80% for 4 and 100% for 5 ‘yes’ responses.
- The final score is an average of all four seasons – the higher the score, the better the diversity.
How to improve:
- To improve the abundance of aquatic life and the quality of your water systems, try adding a cover crop of mustard, leaving stubble or planting a catch crop in nearby fields. These tricks can help reduce soil erosion and intercept nutrients and pesticides that are harmful to water systems.
- Create reed beds that help improve water quality and provide habitats for birds and insects.
- Consider installing a silt trap into a deep and wide ditch. This can help slow water down and reduce pollution risk by intercepting run-off from contaminated agricultural soils.
- AHDB Great Soils: Soil Structure and Infiltration
- The UK Kingdom Butterfly Monitoring Scheme
- Freshwater watch
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