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LEAF-related research

Aerial photograph of the Centre for Sustainable Cropping
An introduction to research at the LEAF Innovation Centre, including the Centre for Sustainable Cropping.

Research priorities

Scientific research at the Institute covers a wide range of scales and disciplines from landscape processes to gene functioning. As a LEAF Innovation Centre, our priorities are:

  • to understand how arable farming can provide multiple 'services' - a stable and resilient ecological infrastructure, supporting high yield and quality of products, within an attractive landscape that people feel a part of and are proud of,
  • to achieve this through improving and stabilising soil structure and function, the efficient use and conservation of nitrogen and phosphorus fertiliser, the beneficial cohabitation between crops and other arable vegetation, and regulating pests without reliance on chemical pesticides,
  • to demonstrate through on-farm trials and the Centre for Sustainable Cropping that sustainable crop production is achievable and that we are getting there.

The Institute's research on LEAF-related topics will be presented here as occasional short articles or pdf files.

Beneficial insects in furrowed field margins

In 2015, a student from AgroParisTech, Benjamin Lepers, spent some time over the summer here learning about vegetation and insect life.  His first task was to complete a survey of plant species in different types of vegetation, including land under cereal crops, grassy field margins, furrowed margins, taller mixed vegetation and hedges. The furrowed margins supported 35-40 plant species along a 100 m stretch. Furrowed margins – an idea developed on this farm – are called ‘Magic Margins’ and recently won awards (see LEAF News on this site).

The next aim was to look within recently formed furrowed margins to record how the vegetation varied on a small scale (e.g. over a few metres) and whether the proportions of plant species influenced the insects that live there. The types, number and mass of insects within these different patches in the furrowed margins and adjacent barley crop were sampled by vortis suction (an instrument like a large vacuum cleaner). The mass of insects - which is an indication of their contribution to the food web - was smallest in the barley crops and grass patches but twice a large in the margins' mixed broadleaf patches.

The findings as a whole demonstrate the value of diversity of vegetation across the farm and diversity at much smaller scales that allow different plant and insect groups to coexist. Notably, the mixed broadleaf patches had by far the highest density of natural enemies (especially parasitic wasps) that feed on herbivore pests of the crop next door. 

Benjamin’s supervisor, Geoff Squire, writes: "This was a highly successful, short-term, undergraduate project. The student learned about biodiversity, food webs, field sampling and analysis while the Hutton gained some early pointers to the value of Magic Margins for food web biodiversity. The project was  an example of the opportunities provided by research, teaching and farming working together across the Institute". 

Thwe following PDF gives a summary of the project: Beneficial insects in furrowed field margins


See also Ed Baxter's commentary on Conservation at the crop edge at LEAF/Comment.

2014-16 Field Campaign - East of Scotland

A major series of field studies began 31 March 2014 to measure and record aspects of crops, weeds and other pests, biodiversity, soils, agronomy and other factors on fields in the East of Scotland from north of Inverness through Moray, Aberdeen, Angus, Fife and south to the Borders. There are two main aims to the work: to revisit fields sampled in the 2007 survey in order to compare change in the intervening period, and to define what makes a sustainable system in which the inputs, outputs in terms of yield and other products are balanced with the in-field environment and the wider impact of farming.

LEAF farmers contribute to the set of >100 fields that make up the study. This major investigation is part of a long term, definitive programme of work on the Atlantic Maritime Croplands around Scotland's coasts. Since sampling and seedbank identification ended in 2015, we have been processing samples and analysing the large datasets that have arisen from the work. The scientists involved have been summarising aspects of the work in various talks and intend to submit a set of papers to refereed journal in 2016/17. 

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

In the global literature, weeds, invertebrate pests and diseases all fall within the term 'pest'. IPM aims to manage pests through understanding their roles and mechanisms of action within the ecological production system. Rather than target the pest directly, as by a spray-on pesticide, IPM looks at how the crop varieties, agronomy and even the arrangement of fields in a landscape can be modified to disrupt a pest's life cycle and spread.

While the Institute has been working in IPM for many years, its capability and activities in the topic are now being increasingly recognised as a consequence of the withdrawal from agriculture of many chemical pesticides. Research and achievements in IPM at the Institute can be found through links to IPM weeds and IPM at the James Hutton Institute. A PDF file is also available: Integrated Pest Management - Weeds at the James Hutton Institute (496 KB).

Field based soil analysis - portable FTIR and XRF

Field based soil analysis posterIndicators such as soil organic matter and micronutrient concentrations are commonly used to assess the state of soils for ecological function. 

Two techniques are now available in portable versions suitable for use in the field.  Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy can provide data on soil organic matter, clays and other soil minerals and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) on individual elements such as copper and lead.  

The instruments give a reading on site and have the potential to replace or augment more laborious laboratory methods. The poster giving information on the methods (image right) is available as a pdf file (720 KB) Field based soil analysis.

Contact: Jean Robertson

SOCiT - new app for soil carbon

The James Hutton institute has released a new iPhone app for estimating soil carbon. You can download it free from the Apple App store  - just search for SOCiT. Your phone will need to be connected via 3G and you will need a 'colour correction card' which will be sent to you. Click this link to read more.

Centre for Sustainable Cropping

The plans for a dedicated field research platform were realised in 2008 with the purchase of the farm at Balruddery. Six fields, amounting to more than 40 hectares of the farm, have been reserved for the Centre for Sustainable Cropping - a long term experiment to examine the biophysical and economic sustainability of arable farming.

While the farm as a whole will be managed as an integrative unit within the surrounding landscape, the six fields of the platform operate as a rotational, split field experiment that compares best conventional practice on one half and innovative (sustainable) practice on the other half. After two years of baseline measurements, the split field experiment began in autumn 2010 with the sowing of the first winter crops.

The Centre for Sustainable Cropping web pages have more information.

Contact for this page: Geoff Squire

Learning & Resources

Printed from /learning/leaf/research on 13/04/24 11:42:29 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.