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Measuring and managing soil health is central to all regenerative agriculture approaches. However, the new Certified Regenerative by AGW program takes things one step further by including biodiversity assessment and monitoring.
Biodiversity is an essential indicator of a successful regenerative farming system, where wildlife habitats are integral parts of the holding. These include areas such as banks, hedges, ponds, species-rich pastures, wetland areas and shrubland.
While testing and monitoring your soils is a worthwhile and recommended practice for the sustainable and positive management of this most precious resource, measuring and monitoring biodiversity is an equally useful and fascinating indicator.
Measuring and monitoring biodiversity will allow you to generate data to establish what flora and fauna and habitats are present on the farm and ensure management practices are enhancing the wider environment through continual improvement of healthy, thriving ecosystems over time.
By monitoring biodiversity on the farm, farmers can highlight the importance of farmland habitats for wildlife to the public and other organizations, which is likely to become increasingly important. Focusing on increasing farmland biodiversity can also make for a more resilient farm ecosystem and declining species populations, particularly with the growing impacts of climate change.
The Certified Regenerative by AGW approach looks to ensure that every farm has a detailed biodiversity plan to ensure a diverse and vibrant wildlife population on the holding. Obviously, how this is achieved will be unique from farm to farm and dependent on local circumstances and priorities.
Habitats can often be integrated with the farming system itself. For example, diverse grasslands can provide habitat and food for a huge variety of invertebrates, birds, and mammals, as well as grazing and forage for livestock. But in other cases, farmland features might exist purely or primarily for the habitats they provide, as with field edges, hedgerows, ponds or woodlands that have lost their direct agricultural or economic value but continue to provide crucial habitat, which in turn serves the farm.
As the old saying goes, “you cannot manage what is not measured.” But it is important to choose the right metrics and methods for measuring biodiversity so that the impact of management can be measured over time—and steered in the direction in which changes are desired.
Common metrics that can be measured with biodiversity monitoring include plant, insect, bird, reptile, or mammal species present on the farm, if they are they increasing in number, and if there are any rare or protected species. Similarly, you can measure and monitor habitats like woodland, riparian areas, and other specialist habitats like wetlands.
What are your goals?
Every individual farm will have a unique range of landscapes, habitats, and flora and fauna. As a result, every individual farm will have unique regenerative biodiversity goals.
Before you attempt to identify your farm’s biodiversity goals—and the best measurement strategies and appropriate milestones for achieving them—it is important to establish reference conditions for your local landscape. In other words, what did your farm look like before modern farm management?
As well as knowing what the local environment looked like before management affected it, it is useful to know what prior management practices occurred, what crops were grown, livestock, and any wildlife that used to be present.
To do this, it will probably be necessary to do some historical research and/or seek expert advice. Historical photos of your land or nearby areas may help you to reconstruct reference conditions. Elderly residents from the area (or neighbors with long family farming history in the area) can also be a helpful resource to gather this knowledge.
Ask an expert
If you are new to regenerative agriculture, it may be useful to consult with a local qualified expert or a local keeper of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) with an understanding of local/regional biodiversity to help determine your land-scape goals, as well as to identify species present, and what management techniques, monitoring methods, and milestones are most appropriate. While some farmers may monitor biodiversity on their farms, a qualified expert can suggest techniques that are easier, faster, more accurate, and/or more helpful to informing your plans and management decisions. It may well be necessary to seek individuals with different expertise. Specialist volunteers, such as students or wildlife experts, might be willing to survey the land at minimal cost.
Establishing a baseline
While it is important to choose the correct methods for monitoring biodiversity, it is also important to establish a baseline. This is the starting point that you will compare to all future assessments and will give you a clear indication if your management practices are successful.
Monitoring plant species
A transect is a scientific method to count and record objects of study in a selected area over time. Transects are particularly useful for observing and monitoring plant species.
Depending on how many types of soil, eco-systems or management uses there are on your holding, you choose the number and placement of transects to be representative to your land. (A Qualified Expert can help you to identify appropriate areas for transects and what to measure or monitor over time.)
There are a few different ways to do a transect, but the most common types are line or square transects.
A line transect establishes a linear path across a site of interest, with a number of fixed markers that can be found every year (either by sight, GPS or metal detector) to identify specific locations for regular, repeat observations around the points on the line.
A square transect is either a fixed square area where measurements are taken every year or it can be done more randomly, where a square marker (eg. a metal wire shaped into a 3ft square) is thrown randomly behind oneself while standing at a specific fixed location that can be found every year. Observations are made within that square wherever it lands.
It is important to collect data on a similar date as previous measurements—certainly in the same season. While photographic records of the transect contents are not necessary, they can make a useful addition to the collection and comparison of data over the years.
As ecosystem biodiversity increases, it is natural that larger wildlife frequency, type and sightings will also increase. For this reason, wildlife counts can be a useful and exciting indicator that regenerative management is headed in the right direction.
Like the transect method for plant species, it is important to perform the monitoring count at the same places and times of the year. It is also important to note any new wildlife you notice at any time of the year and at any location in your Regenerative Plan.
One of the most common types of wildlife counts performed on holdings are bird and insect counts, as both are essential indicators of a successful regenerative farming system.
Bird counts: Here are some general guidelines to help you carry out a bird count as part of your biodiversity plan.
First, select a window of time that you can commit to every year. (Think of the local migration season or just springtime. A qualified expert can offer advice.) On one day, select one spot on the farm to sit at for 30–60 mins to do your count. Bring a pair of binoculars, a note pad and a pencil and, (ideally) one or two good bird guides that cover species in your area. If possible, ask an amateur birdwatching enthusiast to join you for the first few trips. In your 30–60 minute window, record the bird species you spotted and the approximate number.
TIP: If you can’t identify a bird, note as much detail as possible, including the activities of the bird, such as if it was feeding on the ground or hovering over the field. Numerous books or birdwatching apps can help with identification.
Insect counts: A simple way to do biodiversity sampling for insects is called a or Flower-Insect Timed count (or FIT count). A FIT count is a timed count of the number of insects that visit a selected area of flowers (usually 50 x 50cm). A FIT Count should be performed every year at the same approximate location. You may perform more than one FIT count in a day or short period of time but be sure to replicate your methods from year to year at the same location.
Mapping for management
Once you have determined the type of monitoring you intend to carry out (and where), it is important to mark your plans on a site map or maps.
Having detailed maps at the beginning of your regenerative planning phase is important for establishing a baseline and monitoring your progress. Maps will not only help you to stay organized and focused on achieving your goals, but they are essential to enable others—including your visiting AGW auditor—to understand your vision and plans, and measure and monitor your success.
When it comes to farm biodiversity, the AGW standards require farmers to maintain maps that identify and describe the following information as a minimum:
- High-risk areas
- Streams or watercourses
- Wooded areas
- Fields (and field uses)
- Protected sites
- Areas of special biodiversity for any wild-harvested plant or fungi species
- Testing sites (areas and sites of assessment or measurement)
As it is easy to overload a single map with all this information, it’s easier to keep several individual maps to incorporate aspects of the above list, as required.
Photographic records can greatly enhance any Regenerative Plan, documenting past and base-line conditions, as well as providing a visual and relatable account of the changing landscape conditions.
Choosing a fixed point from which to take a yearly photo of specific fields or wild areas will help show changes over time. Once a permanent point is selected, mark it with a short stake, for example, and/or record the GPS coordinates for each photo point for easier finding.
Although far from essential, modern drones offer the potential to take detailed, GPS-located arial images of specific areas at a set height at any time of the year, while image analysis software can even identify different vegetation types.
It may seem daunting to take on scheduled biodiversity monitoring—and even more daunting to imagine that one’s chosen management plan will be scrutinized over time. However, with appropriate guidance and careful planning, the measuring and monitoring of flora and fauna on your farms can quickly become a fascinating and hugely rewarding endeavor—and a powerful marketing message for your business.
WHAT IS A BIODIVERSITY PLAN?
A biodiversity plan should set out a clear vision for the farm, taking into account the various habitats, with specific and quantifiable objectives and clear actions with a timeframe for delivery.
The plan should ensure that threatened, endangered or protected species of flora or fauna and their habitats are protected.
The plan should address the management of existing features and identify opportunities for the creation of new biodiverse features.
The plan should describe effective monitor-ing strategies to demonstrate biodiversity improvement, with the type of monitoring activities, the frequency of recording, and how this will show improvement.
- Example 1: An arable farm might identify the need to minimize the impact of wildlife by improving wildlife habitats in specific fields on the farm. With advice from a qualified expert, the farmer decides to create new hedges through the center of fields, setting a goal to complete the task one year. Once established, they will undertake a wildlife and bird count once a year in the spring to monitor species present. This can all be recorded in their biodiversity plan, with successes measured and monitored over time.
- Example 2: A farmer has a good range of woodland tree species of around three acres, with oak, beech, hazel, ash, and maples present. But to increase wildlife, they are advised to install 10 owl and bat boxes on established trees within one year and plant a further two acres of new woodland across the farm within two years. They will measure success with regular annual bird and bat counts. These observations can be written down in the biodiversity plan and monitored in the future.
Author: Kerry Hughes is an ethnobotanist, herbalist and author. She is president of Ethnopharm, LLC and serves as an advisor to AGW.
Originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of AGW’s Sustainable Farming magazine.