Why monitoring is key

Monitoring is fast becoming a regular activity on every farmers’ ‘to-do’ list. Weather stations, rain gauges, wind speed, crop yield, livestock growth rates – these are all things that farmers have done for years but now they are just a few examples of a plethora of things that can be monitored.

Addressing the question of why we monitor, the key reason is for understanding and greater knowledge. By recognising changes – such as a shift in rainfall patterns or identifying problems – such as an increase in black grass – farmers can take action to mitigate against any adverse impact on their farm. Conversely, by counting the number of predatory insects in a field, may mean using less chemicals or assessing the quality of a hedgerow can indicate that environmental actions are creating good outcomes.

More pragmatic reasons to monitor include financial reward and regulatory compliance. With Defra pushing farmers to monitor more and more aspects of their farming and environmental work, there are rewards for actions within SFI and Countryside Stewardship Schemes that can be backed up by data. Hedgerow assessments are a good example of this.

The third reason, cited frequently by farmers and perhaps not completely understood by government officials, is personal interest. As one Norfolk farmer put it: ‘Monitoring water quality is something I find boring and I only do it because I have to, but identifying and counting birds on my land is something I am really interested in.’ Whether it is growth rates of a pedigree herd of cattle or the abundance of butterflies on a patch of land, there is some monitoring that will ignite the passion of even the most cynical and world weary of farmers.

At a recent meeting hosted and run by the Wendling Beck Project, the focus was on monitoring. A diverse group of farmers and landowners discussed the reasons for monitoring, the vast array of different monitoring activities that took place on a farm, and who carried them out.

On the latter point, it soon became clear that, although volunteer groups and outside agencies played their part – particularly the British Trust of Ornithologists (BTO) – most on-farm monitoring was carried out by the farm. In the case of larger operations, the burden of monitoring was shared across the workforce, but in many circumstances it was carried out by one person.

As was pointed out, a farmer is usually well-equipped to do a lot of self monitoring. One participant is an ecologist as well as a farmer and so was perfectly happy carrying out insect counts, moth counts and water quality assessments. Another was a former agronomist and so had a good grip on data relating to crops, and pest and disease prevalence. A livestock farmer was really confident in his ability to weigh and assess his livestock but was concerned that he wasn’t doing comprehensive soil testing on his pasture land.

Many challenges were aired and discussed. Chief among these was the time factor: when a farmer is under pressure to do the actual job of farming, there is very little time left for in-depth and multitudinous monitoring. There were also concerns about what did a farmer then do with all that information; and even more concerningly, what would Defra be doing with the data it received.

Lizzie Emmett, of the Wendling Beck Project, explained that one of the reasons for holding this workshop was to prepare farmers for a future where Defra would require monitoring to be carried out to a greater extent. For this reason, the feedback from this meeting would be fed back to Defra to highlight concerns and help arrive with solutions.

For the future, while much of the monitoring can be carried out by professionals from various sectors – agronomists, environmental groups, ecological organisations etc, there will also be a huge call for self monitoring. It is certain that technology will continue to develop and play a huge part in monitoring activities, but always with some requirement of the farmer to get his or her hands dirty in the process. With that in mind, two workshops will be held this spring and summer giving practical advice and information on the most efficient and effective ways of monitoring aspects of farming and environmental activities.

These are taking place on Wednesday 29 May or Thursday 11 July at Wendling Beck. Any farmer wishing to attend should contact Lizzie Emmett on lizzie@wendlingbeck.org