The relationship between agriculture and ecosystem services is a strong one. Farming can contribute to critical services including food security and economic growth, maintenance of cultural landscapes, rural employment and (when managed correctly) provision of valuable habitat for a significant proportion of the UK’s species.
In turn, agriculture is critically reliant on services provided by ecosystems. Good soil fertility and structure, for example, are dependent on the input and recycling of organic matter by plants and soil-dwelling organisms, whilst over 80% of crop species in Europe are at least partially reliant on insect pollinators to produce a healthy crop.
This interdependence between farming and ecosystem services is the message behind a recent report commissioned by Natural England which investigates how the use of Environmental Stewardship (ES) schemes on farmland might foster the environmental processes critical to food production.
Ecosystem Services from different Environmental Stewardship options
Assessing the relative ecosystem service value of different Stewardship options, the authors find that measures including winter cover crops, grassland creation and seasonal livestock removal can contribute to services including soil formation, nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration and water regulation. Planting of pollen and nectar seed mixes, which contain a high proportion of nitrogen-fixing legumes, can also enhance soil fertility, as well as providing critical food sources for valuable pollinating insects.
In addition to these pollen sources, pollinators including bees, hoverflies, thrips, beetles and butterflies require suitable nesting sites and landscape-wide habitat connectivity. These are provided by ES options including hedgerow and ditch management, uncropped cultivated margins and creation of species-rich grassland.
Such measures are also found by the authors to boost important pest-regulating species such as predatory beetles and insectivorous birds which can be further enhanced by specifically designed ES options; beetle-banks and wild bird seed mix.
In many cases, the report suggests that ‘bundles’ of these different ES management measures will provide the greatest variety of ecosystem services and meet the whole range of requirements of valuable species. For example, the combination of sympathetic hedgerow management next to a planted flower margin, field buffer strip and adjoining beetle bank will boost natural pest regulation and insect pollinators, as well as creating benefits for soil fertility and structure.
Current distribution of ES schemes and delivery of ecosystem services
The report’s authors also attempt to map the relative delivery of ecosystem services from Environmental Stewardship schemes across the UK.
Using a scoring system, the authors rank ES options by their relative delivery of ecosystem services identified as ‘key’ to agricultural production. These scores are combined with data on the distribution of the various options across the UK, producing maps showing where ES options are delivering ecosystem services.
These projections reveal that there is an apparent positive association between the level of key ecosystem services being delivered by ES options and the rate of arable and dairy farming in a region. However, in some areas with high levels of arable and horticultural production, pollination services appear disproportionately low. The authors suggest improved targeting of options to boost pollinator populations could be beneficial.
Main messages and conclusions
The report concludes that Environmental Stewardship schemes have significant potential to enhance a range of ecosystem services of benefit to agricultural production. However, relatively few options have been specifically designed with this in mind and there is significant scope for further development of options to extend their delivery of ecosystem services.
There is also a critical need for further research to provide quantitative evidence of the ES benefits of Stewardship options, building on existing work and addressing current knowledge gaps. In this way, the full value of Environmental Stewardship schemes, for the environment as well as agricultural production, can be realised.