Thursday, 29 October 2020

Methodology to include farmland habitats in sustainability assessments

A new Teagasc publication to be published in the Irish Journal of Agricultural and Food Research outlines the development of scalable methods to include farmland habitats in sustainability assessments. Here, I give a brief 'taster' of the content of that paper, and an overview of the approach that is based on categorising farmland habitats using satellite imagery. 

Sustainability claims need to be verified

In response to consumer pressure and policy targets, there is a greater requirement to measure and verify the level of delivery of key sustainability indicators. A common approach involves individual assessment of farm performance according to criteria in a sustainability scheme. 

Sustainability assessments need to include farmland habitats
There has been a global increase in the number of industry-led sustainability assessments. However, biodiversity and farmland wildlife are often omitted, or included in only a trivial manner. (There are exceptions, of course.) To properly represent sustainability, a measure of biodiversity needs to be incorporated into assessments of farm-scale sustainability. 

Doing this is not without challenges. Biodiversity is multi-faceted, requires specific expertise, and can be highly location-specific, requiring site visits and assessments that can add considerably to labour costs. These costs can be a major impediment to the inclusion of farmland wildlife in large-scale implementation of sustainability assessments. (As a contrasting example, verification that farm chemicals are stored safely is relatively straightforward.)

Pilot project on farmland habitats
We're investigating how to include farmland habitats in assessments of agricultural sustainability. In addition, we are aiming to do so without the high costs associated with individual farm visits. Instead, we aim to see whether we can use aerial imagery and ICT (file-sharing of habitat photos) to make farmland habitat surveys a low-cost action. The key aim was: how to get from satellite imagery (as in Fig. 1 below), to a farm habitat map (see Fig. 2)?
Fig. 1, Aerial photography provides high quality imagery, and can be an 
excellent starting point for disentangling semi-natural 
wildlife habitats from intensively managed farmland. The first challenge
is to identify the boundary of individual farms that are undertaking an assessment.

Fig. 2. Photos can help improve identification of farmland habitats, 
especially in combination with aerial photography. We are developing
ICT systems to supply an ecologist with farm-level photos of habitats. 

In a Teagasc-funded project in partnership with Bord Bia, we collaborated on a pilot project to implement farmland habitat surveys on about 200 Irish farms that agreed to participate. The real challenge is to develop approaches and systems that could be scaled up to many more farmers if required. Thus, we are developing data management approaches that combine aerial photography, farm boundary data, and file-sharing of farm photos. We are also automating the preparation of farm habitat plans that include: a farm habitat map, habitat types and areas, a basic habitat descriptions and information on good management practice for wildlife, and photos of wildlife habitats on the farm. An example of some of the final output is provided in Fig. 3. This would satisfy the requirements of sustainability assessments.

Fig. 3. Example of the final farm habitat map and table with habitat types and sizes, and an estimate of the relative wildlife value of the different habitats. 

Update 17 Nov 2020: see a more recent post ‘SmartAgriHubs:pilot incorporation of farmland habitats in Teagasc National Farm Survey’ that describes how we have used this method to pilot the incorporation of biodiversity into the Teagasc National Farm Survey.

Further reading:

J.A. Finn and P. Moran. A pilot study of methodology for the development of farmland habitat reports for sustainability assessments. Irish Journal of Agricultural and Food Research. DOI: 10.15212/ijafr-2020-0103. (in press)

Larkin et al. 2019. Semi-natural habitats and Ecological Focus Areas on cereal, beef and dairy farms in Ireland. Land Use Policy, 104096

Sheridan, H., J. A. Finn, N. Culleton, and G. O'Donovan. 2008. Plant and invertebrate diversity in grassland field margins. Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment 123:225-232.

Sheridan, H., B. J. McMahon, T. Carnus, J. A. Finn, A. Anderson, A. J. Helden, A. Kinsella, and G. Purvis. 2011. Pastoral farmland habitat diversity in south-east Ireland. Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment 144:130-135.

Sheridan, H., B. Keogh, A. Anderson, T. Carnus, B. J. McMahon, S. Green, and G. Purvis. 2017. Farmland habitat diversity in Ireland. Land Use Policy 63:206-213.

Sullivan, C. A., D. Bourke, M. S. Skeffington, J. A. Finn, S. Green, S. Kelly, and M. J. Gormally. 2011. Modelling semi-natural habitat area on lowland farms in western Ireland. Biological Conservation 144:1089-1099.

Sullivan, C. A., J. A. Finn, M. J. Gormally, and M. S. Skeffington. 2013. Field boundary habitats and their contribution to the area of semi-natural habitats on lowland farms in east Galway, western Ireland. Biology and Environment: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 113B(2):1-13.

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