The baseline

Essential to any conceptual or predictive study of a 'system' is a reference  to real examples of its state and dynamics. Concepts and models should consider how the past has given rise to the present before they can can hope to predict how the present can be the basis of a sustainable future. At the beginning of this study, there was little systematic information at the scale of the field on either present or past states.

Historical trajectories

The condition of soil and farming in the past is not well documented. The major surveys of soil and vegetation provide useful background but are too infrequent. The main systematic source of data is the June Agricultural Census from which the areas grown with different crops and grass can be collated. Ten areas, defined by groups of parishes, shown circled in red in the map to the left, were selected as covering most types of farming within the arable-grass system. The Scottish Government provided data on cropped areas in each group, as electronic files from 1982 and as scanned paper documents before that. Other sources are being used to complement the information from the June census, notably surveys of pesticides and fertilizer.

The analysis so far has shown that - rather than becoming more uniform - the arable-grass regions of Scotland have become more diverse in the last quarter of a century, in that the regions have each taken on more types of crop and the regions have become more different. The major differences have been caused by change in the areas of spring barley, winter wheat and various categories of grassland.

The 2007/08 baseline

The pressing question was whether these recent changes had affected the state of the fields. An ambitious study  therefore began in 2007 in the form of a baseline survey of biophysical and economic indicators in more than 100 fields in the arable, east seaboard of Scotland. Further sampling was carried out in 2008 and studies on specific indicators are continuing in 2009. The map to the right shows the locations of many of the farms, green indicating LEAF farms, red, organic, and blue, farms with no particular adherence. The reason for sampling across the farming preferences is to encompass a wide range of field management.  Indicators were measured in each field in the following categories:

  • field boundaries and margins
  • soil - its general characteristics, physical properties and microbial community
  • crop, yield and agronomic inputs
  • seedbank and weed flora
  • invertebrates and food web.

This is the foundation of the baseline. It forms a 'basic data set' of indicators for each field. Work on the samples of soil, plant and invertebrates will continue. The survey is already the most comprehensive of in any arable-grass region in Britain and possibly in Europe. Its main findings will be published in the scientific literature and summarised here.

 
Contacts and funding

This baseline study of arable-east Scotland was funded by the Scottish Government within the Sustainable Crop Systems workpackage. Contributors include all three research groups in EPI and colleagues in the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC). It would not have been possible without the farmers who gave access to their fields and information on their recent cropping history. Contacts: for general information on the baseline study, Geoff Squire; the initial field campaign in 2007/08, Cathy Hawes; the database, Mark Young; soil biophysical measurements, Paul Hallett; at SAC, Christine Watson).