Grass breeding and short-rotation willow top the bill at AFBI forum

The Agri Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) hosted a recent National Trust Land Management Forum meeting at Loughgall, Co. Armagh.

The National Trust team included Ian McCurley, Consultancy Manager and Forestry Adviser, Phil Davidson, Regional Wildlife and Countryside Adviser and the countryside management personnel responsible for managing the 12,000ha of National Trust land in Northern Ireland.

Prof. Jim McAdam, Head of Grassland and Plant Science Branch welcomed the group and highlighted AFBI’s plant science research that was relevant to the trust.

David Johnston led a tour of the grass breeding programme at Loughgall, which aims to produce improved forage grasses that are “well-adapted to climatic conditions in the UK and Ireland”.

The programme, initially established with indigenous Irish material, focuses on breeding disease-resistant, productive varieties which are suited to grazing and silage production. Recent work has studied the use of species-rich swards – with the objective of identifying nutrient-efficient grasses.

According to AFBI, an increasingly important aspect of the research is the development of legumes which can provide an alternative source of nitrogen. All new varieties developed in the programme are commercialised through an industry partner.

Agro-forestry systems are said to offer the option for “sustainable intensification of grassland while delivering a suite of ecosystem services”. Prof. McAdam highlighted the “carbon storage potential and climate-change resilience of the mature silvopasture at Loughgall”.

The future of hardwood trees in the countryside was discussed, with AFBI’s trials demonstrating the potential for wild cherry, oak and sycamore to act as an alternative to ash if dieback disease significantly impacts on wild populations.

The ‘Agrocop’ system trials, where wide-spaced trees (in an agro-forestry-type scenario) are under-planted by a coppice willow crop to maximise biomass output from a given land area, was said to have attracted considerable attention. The trust is actively exploring alternative ways to utilise trees on the land they manage. Research being carried out on systems, such as those at Loughgall, is said to be “highly relevant to their needs”.

AFBI
Members of the National Trust pictured at the recent AFBI-hosted Land Management Forum

Mel Flexen highlighted the AFBI biodiversity monitoring programme and research into the development of options for DAERA (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs) agri-environment schemes. The National Trust land management team heard about how the outcomes of this work have led to reported improvements to scheme management prescriptions and options, as much of its farmland is managed under such schemes.

Flexen then provided a summary of the research and monitoring that AFBI has carried out in relation to sustainable upland management, through projects at CAFRE’s (College of Agriculture, Foord and Rural Enterprise’s) Greenmount Hill Farm and other upland farms throughout Northern Ireland. The work at Glenwherry was of particular relevance as it “demonstrated how organisations and landowners can work in partnership to bring about positive outcomes for both livestock farming, habitats and wildlife”.

Linda Walsh reviewed the contribution AFBI research has made to the development and testing of short rotation coppice (SRC) willow for the sustainable production of agricultural biomass in N.Ireland. AFBI is working with a number of private and public bodies in developing the use of SRC willow for the sustainable management of societal waste water streams; the management of waste, protection of the environment and the production of a renewable energy resource.

Recent EU funding is also enabling AFBI to develop and assess SRC willow options to protect environmental water quality from the negative polluting effects of diffuse agricultural run-off, an intervention which could reportedly play a role within DAERA’s Sustainable Agricultural Land Management Strategy.

Dr John Bailey explained that research within Agri-Environment Branch was aimed at delivering “significant improvements” in the management of three key inter-related natural resources: soil, water and air. He made clear that the ultimate goal was to provide practical solutions to the conundrum of achieving required levels of production – but achieving it in economically and environmentally sustainable ways.

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