Blog written by Lucy Bates, Nature Recovery Champion at Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, June 2022

Can broad scale arable agriculture be compatible with the diverse and abundant insect life that indicates and underpins landscape scale nature recovery?

As the government response to Henry Dimbleby’s food strategy hit the headlines, food security, sustainability and sovereignty rose higher than ever up the agenda. Violent disruption to commodity supplies from the fertile breadbasket of Ukraine have revealed fragility of global supply chains. Rapidly rising prices of everything from petrol to pasta are impacting household shopping bills across the board. Unfolding biodiversity and climate crises mean the need to produce better food more sustainably on less land is only growing.

As an agricultural county that punches above its weight in contribution to the UK’s self-sufficiency in cereal crops, Wiltshire is on the frontline of upping the game to make space for wildlife while feeding the country. Preventing crop losses from disease, weed and pest pressures to optimize the land and inputs used in growing them is one key part of landscape scale nature recovery. Doing this without disrupting, polluting or degrading the wider environment we all love and depend on is another. Wiltshire Wildlife Trust (WWT) is working at a local and national level to drive forwards the development and uptake of increasingly nature friendly farming that still delivers on yield and quality.

Over the long history of farming, insects have arguably made up both the most damaging class of crop pest, and the most adversely affected class of non-target organism. There are varying takes on the scale and significance of insect decline globally, but no doubt that extensive chemical agronomy has had a negative impact on the diversity and abundance of species in farmed areas. As healthy insect populations provide vital agricultural services such as pollination, nutrient cycling and biological control of other insects, protection and restoration of these populations is a clear necessity if we are to grow the food needed to support humanity through the 21st century.

One way in which progress towards this is being demonstrated in Wiltshire is in the uptake of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM applies a set of principles that guide growers in choosing appropriate physical, biological and chemical crop protection techniques to enable growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to agricultural ecosystems. It encourages natural pest control mechanisms, and minimal use of synthetic chemistry only when all other options- including doing nothing- have been exhausted. Decision making is based on sound economic and environmental thresholds supported by regular information gathering and most up to date research.

IPM encourages better and more targeted use of all available control measures. IPM also encourages farmers to take advantage of a wide range of practices enabling design of the best overall strategy for the circumstances. Successful IPM presents the lowest risk to human health and the environment whilst maintaining biodiversity, facilitating conservation and sustainable resource use. It’s a win-win approach: pesticides (or Plant Protection Products- PPP) are expensive, and increasingly unavailable or ineffective either through evolving legislation or resistance buildup in pest populations. By working through the steps ‘Prevent, Detect, Control, Evaluate’ when deciding on if, when, what and how to use them, significant reductions in the application of PPPs to crop land are being achieved.

Examples of how this looks in action on the ground in Wiltshire include:

  • Choosing disease resistant or tolerant cereal varieties to avoid insecticide and fungicide use
  • Drilling cereals later where ground conditions allow, to reduce the risk of insect borne diseases and grass weeds, thereby avoiding PPP applications
  • Raising organic matter content of soils to improve crop health and resulting resilience to pests and disease
  • Rotating crops to avoid the buildup of pests and diseases
  • Using zero till and other cultivation techniques to avoid the need for herbicide applications to control grass weeds
  • Planting floral margins and beetle banks that provide habitats for beneficial insects year round, reducing the need for insecticide applications
  • Maintaining and enhancing woodlands and hedgerows to provide habitats and refuges for insects and wildlife
  • Inspecting crops regularly for signs of pests and diseases so action is informed by need
  • Changing expectations of zero pest or disease tolerance to the adoption of thresholds for PPP application
  • When PPPs are used, following best practice guidelines at every stage of application to avoid environmental contamination
  • Working together in Farmer Groups to share experience on successes and failures and explore new techniques

Farmer Groups, pioneered first in Wiltshire in 2012, are seeing tangible results from working in this way over time, in some places reversing the decline in farmland birds. LEAF Demonstration Farms (of which there are 7 across our neighbouring counties) implement IPM as a matter of course and show great results.  The WWT Action for Insects project is adding to the evidence base of optimum management practices for invertebrate conservation and recovery on the Trust’s own farmed reserves.

In addition to working with farmers in Wiltshire to demonstrate and showcase how productive farming and entomological nature recovery can go hand in hand, WWT is also collaborating with colleagues across the Wildlife Trusts (TWT) movement to influence farm policy at a national level. In response to the Government’s consultation on the draft National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides in 2020, TWT produced a document laying out informed proposals as to how to meet the needs of the UKs agricultural sector whilst protecting and enhancing habitats and species. Putting IPM at the heart of pest management in the UK is front and centre of this- with the goal being a reduction in the impacts and risks of PPP use through research and training in alternative whole system crop protection strategies.

Wiltshire sits on the TWT Land Management Practitioners Group, meeting monthly to support the national Head of Policy Barnaby Coupe in the stakeholder co-design process for the emerging Environmental Land Management schemes. Part of this work involves contributing to the development of a future IPM standard within the most widely accessible component of ELM, the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI). In this context, our role is to advocate for the precautionary principle, and press for an upward trajectory of ambition in how growers can be supported to transition towards wildlife and insect friendly farming.

The evidence and will is there on all sides for arable cropping to be an increasingly viable part of a thriving and productive ecosystem. Insect population recovery is both a mechanism and an indicator of this. Wiltshire Wildlife Trust will continue to work with our farming neighbours to ensure that as a county we lead the way in this as we have at every turn in the evolution of agriculture to date.

If you are interested to find out more about IPM in arable farming, in Wiltshire and beyond, have a look at some of these links:

RR98 final project report.pdf ( 2021 AHDB Research Review on IPM in arable rotations

Boosting beneficial insects on farm with an IPM approach - YouTube 2022 Farming the Future webinar 2021 LEAF Virtual Field Day on IPM in arable

Simply-Sustainable-Integrated-Pest-Management-FINAL.pdf 2020 Field guide to IPM in action

Weeds, pests and diseases | Agricology A library of resources from across farming systems

Tools | AHDB Some of the IPM decision support tools freely available to UK growers

TWT- Reversing Insect Declines 2021 A report on how and why insect populations need reviving, co-authored by WWT CEO Gary Mantle

Discover our Action For Insects project