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The Allerton Project: A farm case study

Date Published: 07/11/2023

The Allerton Project demonstrates how farming can produce food while delivering environmental outcomes. Dr. Alastair Leake, the winner of the 2023 RASE National Agricultural Award, has led the project since 2001, building on the extraordinary bank of scientific evidence from the first 10 years of the project and stepping up how the project findings are shared with the farming community.

Read on to find out about the key learnings from the project since its beginning.    

The roots of the project  

The Allerton Project is located on a 830 acre estate in the midlands. It was launched in 1992 because the owners of the farm, Lord and Lady Allerton, had no successors. They had a connection with the place and wanted their legacy to live on, so decided to leave the farm for the purposes of carrying out research and education, to benefit farmers, landowners and wider society.

At the time, most farms had followed the direction of the post-war government, which was focused on the production of food. Farms received incentives via the Common Agricultural Policy and loss of wildlife was seen as collateral damage. It was very early days in terms of the government paying money to farmers for environmental stewardship. The schemes were very prescriptive, with only a few farms involved. Organic was seen as a way to protect nature while farming, but meant a significant loss of production.

Lord and Lady Allerton recognised that by producing less food biodiversity could be increased, but they didn’t want to do that. Their vision was for the project to demonstrate that productive farming could progress hand in hand with wildlife enhancement or conservation.

The first 10 years

Throughout the first decade of the project, a programme of wild game management was instigated by bringing a gamekeeper onto the estate. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust knew from other estates the organisation had worked with that managing land for game can deliver both productive farming and support wildlife.

Most gamekeeper vs non gamekeeper comparisons focus on the number of game birds, but as well as monitoring game birds, farmland birds were monitored as part of The Allerton Project. Within 3 years of the gamekeeper arriving, the farmland bird numbers had doubled. This was in the early 90s, when farmland bird species were declining nationally, so to reverse the trend which had been going on since the 1960s was an extraordinary result.

At the time, those involved in game management would likely have said that their activities increased wildlife numbers, but The Allerton Project was the first to use scientists to measure the impact of game management on biodiversity. The doubled numbers were maintained until year 10 of the project.

How does managing for game increase biodiversity?

Game management involves three key tactics to enable game birds to thrive:

  • Habitat creation
  • Provision of food in the winter
  • Managing some species of predators

Following the extraordinary results in the first 10 years of the project, the government, the RSPB and other environmental NGOs started to ask questions, wanting to know which of the three tactics was contributing most to the increase in farmland bird numbers.

To answer the question, the team at The Allerton Project stopped one game management tactic at a time to measure the response in farmland birds. They began by stopping predation management for 5 years and counting the farmland bird populations, which reduced by 30%.

The team then stopped feeding birds in winter, which led to another 30% reduction in farmland bird populations over the next 5 years. By this time, the government had introduced the entry level stewardship scheme, which had a target of 70% of farmers across the country to be involved in environmental stewardship. All the environmental stewardship measures the government was planning to pay farmers for were habitat focused, with no supplementary feeding or predation management. The team at The Allerton Project were able to share the evidence that with habitat creation only, the scheme would not achieve the rate of increase in farmland bird populations which they had proved was possible when all three game management tactics were used.

At this point the deconstruction project had been running for 10 years, 5 years with no predation and another 5 years with no predation or winter feeding. The decision was made to bring a gamekeeper back, which led to the number of farmland birds doubling once again.

Environmental management

When Alastair started at The Allerton Project in 2001, it was in the midst of deconstructing how game management benefited farmland birds. Rather than waiting for the 10 years to complete before starting new areas of research, he and the team started to look at wider aspects of environmental management. This included looking at soil management, carbon management, natural pest control, water quality and how to reduce flooding. They introduced no tillage methods and cover crops, and began to measure the impacts on the soil, the environment and the farm business.

In one field, where the team pioneered zero till, the earthworm numbers increased from 200 per m2 to 700 per m2. The porosity of the soil improved, meaning it could soak up water during rainfall and release moisture during drought. The increased earthworm numbers also support predators, contributing to increased biodiversity.

One of the key strengths of The Allerton Project has been the ability to gather data over a long period of time. Nowadays, a research contract from government needs to be delivered in 3 years, but soil takes longer to respond. The long term tenure has allowed the team at The Allerton Project to measure and gather evidence of long term impacts of different management approaches.

For example, in the best zero till field the team deliberately ploughed some strips out, to find out what happens when you get soil into a good condition and then plough it. That’s an important question for people growing parsnips, or carrots, or potatoes, because they need to plough to grow those crops. The team has explored ways to prepare the soil for ploughing and to restore soil health quickly after being ploughed, providing options for regenerative farmers to grow root crops while looking after soil health.

Outreach to the farming community and wider public

Lord and lady Allerton set the twin objectives of conducting research and providing education and outreach to society.

In the first 10 years, the project team built a tremendous resource of science showing how agriculture and the environment interact. Over time, this has progressed to taking the science and helping farmers to implement it. Since leading the project, Alastair has focused on making information interesting and relevant to farmers, by highlighting the practical things that can be done and sharing good scientific evidence that these measures work.

Activities have included the creation of courses and putting on a range of events, all to help the farming industry upskill based on evidence of what works. Looking to the future, Alastair expects to step up the focus on helping farmers with productivity, because with climate change and political turmoil there will be a need for more resilience in food production.

In addition to sharing research and upskilling the farming community, The Allerton Project has opened its gates on open farm Sunday since the early days of the project. The team also works with the Country Trust to bring school children onto the farm, to help foster an interest in and understanding of agriculture and the environment. Lady Allerton was passionate about ensuring the project reached both the farming community and wider society, so it has stayed true to its roots.  

About the RASE National Agricultural Award

Originally established in 1964, the National Agricultural Award is presented to an individual to recognise an outstanding contribution to the advancement of agriculture in the UK. The award may be made for a particular achievement or the culmination of work over a number of years.

The award is now sponsored by Savills. Having been established as a land agency in 1855, the countryside remains core to Savills’ activities.

Farming is facing a seismic policy shift, led by devolved governments across the UK. Future support will incentivise farming businesses that invest in the environmental resilience of their natural assets and the Savills team is supporting clients in navigating this transition. 

The rural sector holds many of the solutions to the challenge of climate change and biodiversity loss, whilst still maintaining efficient food production, and Savills are at the cutting edge of understanding the opportunities that this will create for the sector, from investment in production systems to the selling environmental offsets. The Savills farming team, based throughout the UK, is heavily involved in advising farming businesses on their next steps to take advantage of the new opportunities.