Tag Archives: Agricultural science

Bees, neonicotinoids and pollination: moving forward

So three neonicotinoid products are to be banned across Europe for two years from December 1st 2013.  It is evident that there are a range of possible reasons for a decline in bee populations, including diseases such as Varroa, issues surrounding breeding and sufficient food and habitat availability. In two years’ time there will be a review of the ban, but is that long enough to prove anything? I think we’ll just have to wait and see. There are some interesting views on the topic here.

Bee on knapweed

One thing the whole debate has stirred up is the need to do more for bees and other pollinators, and it has given much needed publicity to the importance of bees in the environment.

I spoke to Andrew Hughes, Farm Manager at Trinley Estates, where they’ve done a lot of work to help bees and other pollinating insects thrive on the farm. “I’m a strong believer that if you provide bees with a good variety of plants, populations will be maintained and healthy. We always want to improve the amount and variety of nectar sources with pollen and nectar mixes, wild bird seed mixes, grass strips and we also have a wild flower meadow.  By producing greater plant diversity then we can produce stronger and broader food chains that will rescue some of our most endangered insect and bird species.”

Through some good woodland management, with coppicing and maintaining the flora, there is also a thriving wild bee population in the woodland found on the farm.

Arable reversion meadow at Trinley estates

Arable reversion meadow at Trinley estates

Andrew has also been working with local natural beekeepers, “The aim is to keep bees in as near natural conditions as possible to promote health and vigour and the ability to cope with pests and pathogens”.  And it seems to be working, “Our beekeepers have mentioned that many of the hives around us haven’t been doing so well recently, but where we haven’t taken any honey from the hives in the last few years, they’re doing really well.”

Andrew has been recording the fauna and flora on the farm through photography on its own dedicated website. “Ultimately, I am interested in monitoring population changes from one year to the next. But what it’s really doing is making me much more aware of the species we do have on the farm”. I urge you to take a look – it’s great to see the diversity of wildlife and there are some cracking photos too, my favourites being the hare shots!

Perhaps we hear about this kind of wonderful work disproportionately at LEAF, because of the nature of our members.  At LEAF, we promote Integrated Farm Management, which is an approach delivering sustainable farming.  One part of this is landscape and nature conservation, which sits alongside other areas like crop health and protection. The point is that everything needs to be integrated on the farm, and lots of our members have that approach.

Bees are vital to farming. Integrating positive steps to provide food and habitat for pollinators into commercial farming is something we fully endorse.

What do you think of the neonicotiniod ban? Is there more we can do for pollinating insects or do you think we’re doing enough already? I’d like to hear your views – please comment below.

Further links:

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Introducing… Avondale

Johnathan Grieve, Proprietor, Avondale Wines

Avondale is a family owned and family run South African wine farm located near Paarl in the spectacular Western Cape. The farm has been under cultivation for more than 300 years and prides itself in producing fine wines with care for the environment, using holistic farming methods.  Avondale have won numerous awards in recognition of their commitment to environmentally sensitive farming and were the first wine producers in South Africa to become LEAF Marque certified.  Here, we chat to Jonathan Grieve, Proprietor about wine, weather, water and ducks!

How did it all begin and what inspires you?
My family bought the estate in 1996 and at that stage it was very run down and farmed conventionally. I started working on Avondale in 1999 fresh out of studying fine art, I soon become aware that the conventional methods where not working as they preached. So I started to look at alternatives which lead me back to the natural way. As they say the rest is history and that was the start of our system that we call BioLOGIC®.

Avondale were one of the first South African wine producers to be awarded the ‘Biodiversity in Wine’ certification – what’s the secret of your success?
Well our approach to production is quite simple, we always ask the question; “Does Mother Nature approve?”, if the answer is yes then we are happy if no, we need to go back to the drawing board. We want a living natural self-sustaining system which only comes from a holistic approach.

Why LEAF Marque?
One of the main reasons is that we sell our wines and fruit in the UK market and naturally with all the initiatives that Avondale has in place LEAF made sense from an external audited standard. This way we can talk about what we do and it’s also externally validated.

You pride yourselves in taking a more environmentally-friendly, holistic approach to wine production.  What role does LEAF and Integrated Farm Management play at Avondale?
Well we believe our BioLOGIC® system goes a lot further than any conventional standard requires, we do every thing from nurturing the smallest bacteria in the soil, through to the largest animal we have on Avondale. It’s a true holistic approach; of course LEAF and IFM have certain structures that bring different aspects into focus from a managerial perspective which is very positive.

You have developed your own unique approach to viticulture called ‘BioLOGIC®’ – what’s it all about?
Well it’s all about creating living systems naturally, it has three basic pillars namely organise, biodynamics and modern science all combined to form a living system. For more in-depth information you can visit my blog on www.biologicwine.co.za

You practice slow wine making – what is it and why?
Well it’s all about firstly producing the best possible grapes full of flavour and expression of place and then the wine making needs to take this raw material and get it into the bottle and to the customer. We believe the only way to do this is in the natural slow wine making principles. So we make use of only natural fermentations with almost no additives (No acid, sugar, enzymes yeast etc.) We do much more warmer fermentations and because of the natural fermentations some of the wines can take up to six months to ferment. But this is really where all the flavour and mouth feel comes from.

At the end we want to produce wines that are very expressive from where they come from, not “Factory made”! Wines that express the soils, the climate and the place they are made, so when one of our customers open a bottle of Avondale it’s unlike anything else. That’s why we do it!

We produce extraordinary wines approved by Mother Nature!

Your ethos is Terra Est Vita, which means ‘Soil is Life’ – what does this mean in practice at Avondale?
Well it’s the base of everything, if you don’t have a living soil you will not have a living farm. So we start with a very integrated soil balancing system to “restock the pantry” from a natural broad spectrum nutrient perspective. This is because through broad spectrum nutrition you get plant heath less decease, less weed competition and ultimately a living as nature intended. Of course we use no chemicals at all on Avondale.

We also have a very integrated cover cropping system that we grow diverse mixes of crops throughout the year in the vines and orchards which chief goal is to feed the natural soil food web. Of course it also does a lot of other beneficial things such as nitrogen binding through legumes, natural tillage, erosion control and provides an environment for all the natural predators etc. to be in the soil and vineyard.

You control pests and diseases using natural methods. Can you tell us more about your approach and your famous duck posse?!
At Avondale we mimic the ways that Nature supports natural predators in the system so as to curb disease and regulate infestations.

  • At the micro-level we make use of two strains of beneficial bacteria to combat downy mildew and harmful worms.
  • When necessary, we release the predatory wasp known as the mealy bug destroyer to combat attacks by mealy bugs.
  • On the larger scale, Spotted Eagle Owls, Rock Kestrels, Yellow-billed and Black-shouldered Kites occur naturally on the farm and we have encouraged these birds of prey to do their work of rodent control where we need it most by erecting tall poles for convenient perching and owl houses in the vineyards.

Perhaps the most picturesque of our natural pest management methods is the employment of a posse of glossy white Pekin ducks who range through green vineyards on snail patrol. These ducks are entrained from young to voluntarily gather in the custom-made ‘duck-mobile’ and go out each weekday to do their work. Happily, they waddle between the vines and forage in the cover crops for snails. They are a highly effective and cost-efficient team who protect us from the damage that snails can do without having to resort to poisonous bait or the organically approved substitutes for snail control.

Have a look at the video to see the ducks at work

We have learnt from Nature that there are always better alternatives and we are constantly seeking new ways to strengthen the ecosystem as a whole, such as our current investigations into being an attractive environment for bats which do great work at moth control.

Photographs courtesy of Avondale via flickr

Bringing it all together

Last week, LEAF’s Chairman, Stephen Fell, joined our Technical Day in Yorkshire. Here’s what he had to say.


Stephen Fell, LEAF Chairman, with James Hinchcliffe, Top House Farm, and Lynda Deeks, Cranfield University

On Tuesday of last week I headed off to our local LEAF Technical Field Day hosted by the Hinchcliffe family at Rawcliffe Bridge near Goole, Yorkshire. BASF have been carrying out field trials there for 16 years and for the last 10 have supported biodiversity practice to show how good commercial farming can be totally compatible with good environmental management.
I was greeted with a chorus of skylark song – so on cue that momentarily one suspected an amplified recording!

The interesting thing is that the skylarks nest in the cover crops but feed on insects in the wheat. The Hinchcliffes haven’t used insecticides in their crops for many years and are now appreciating the multiple benefits of that policy.

This day brought together experts in soil structure, water quality management, active biodiversity management, new chemistry and communicating with the public. Quite a range you might think, but all areas which LEAF brings together so well in the wheel of Integrated Farm Management.

I found the new chemistry fascinating – increasing the kilograms of wheat produced per kilogram of nitrogen used, reducing the tonnes of water used per tonne of wheat produced by 30%, and most interesting of all, ways of increasing root biomass by up to 45%. I firmly believe that learning how to grow roots is at the heart of our next leap in yield – and this encompasses soil structure, and a much greater understanding of soil microbial activity and nutrient availability.

Soil erosion was something I always thought happened in areas of arable cultivation on steep land in the high rainfall areas of the country. I was knocked back to learn that the Elvington treatment works in the Vale of York removes 10,000 tonnes of topsoil from water every year. We certainly still have a lot to learn about managing soil runoff. We all think we know about soil compaction, but how often do we actually take out the spade and dig the hole? The good operators do.

In charting the astonishing increase in bird species and numbers as well as pollinators, over the years, Graham Hartwell, BASF’s Stewardship Manager, had an important message – “the simple things make a difference”. The areas of cover crop and bird seed mixtures don’t need to be huge (2% of the farm in this case) but go for a continuity of food supply by planting something in the autumn and the spring, using mixtures that are proven, and feed birds extra over winter if necessary.

Tamara Hall, a successful Yorkshire pioneer in Open Schools Days in the run up to Open Farm Sunday, again gave simple messages about communicating with the public. The rewards to both giver and recipient were plain to see.

What a good day it was, with all attendees going away with plenty to think about. I would encourage any of you to go along to one of these LEAF events – they are so much more than just a farm walk.