Water Friendly Farming is a long-term research demonstration project. With our partners, we're testing the effectiveness of landscape-wide agri-environment measures for reducing the impact of rural land use on freshwaters and the services they provide.

Pond with tree reflected on the water, blue sky behind.

Do agri-environment schemes really work for water?

We urgently need to get evidence of what works and what doesn’t so agri-environment funding is not, literally, poured down the drain. Water Friendly Farming aims to do just that.

The only demonstration project of its kind, Water Friendly Farming is delivering evidence on the benefits of agri-environment schemes for biodiversity, flood prevention and water pollution control. It’s helping to answer important questions:

  • Can we protect and increase freshwater biodiversity without impinging on farm profitability?
  • Can we reduce diffuse water pollution?
  • Can we hold back water to help reduce downstream flooding?

The objective is to find out, for the first time, how well landscape-wide mitigation measures work and how successful they are in providing the benefits we need:

  • Clean water to support fish, aquatic invertebrates, plants and other wildlife
  • For our use and better flood storage to reduce the risks of flooding downstream.

Where we're working

The project works in three adjacent catchments: two experimental catchments and one control catchment, each around 10 km2 in area. The catchments are:

1. The Barkby Brook, a tributary of the River Soar, acts as the control allowing background changes in the landscape to be controlled for in the experiment.
2. The Eye Brook, which drains towards the River Welland, is one of our two experimental catchment in which water protection and hydrological measures are implemented, including ‘leaky dams’ to increase the landscape’s flood storage capacity.
3. The Stonton Brook, which also drains towards the River Welland, is our second experimental catchment which includes not only water protection and hydrological measures but also additional physical habitat enhancement for biodiversity, allowing the combined effect of both types of measures to be assessed.

- Field sampling points in the Stonton Brook Catchment - Water Friendly Farming.

Why we need Water Friendly Farming

Almost all lowland freshwater rivers, streams and ponds are degraded by diffuse pollution from farmland activities, run-off from roads, industry and urban inputs including sewage works. Three-quarters of rivers in England and Wales fail to meet even minimum legal standards set for a healthy river by the EU Water Framework Directive. Monitoring evidence from ponds shows they too have declined in quality in recent years.

In the UK we spend many millions of pounds annually on measures to mitigate this damage, including through agri-environment payments to farmers. Yet there is surprisingly little information to show whether these mitigations work, and if this is money well spent. We urgently need to get evidence of what works and what doesn’t so agri-environment funding is not, literally, poured down the drain. Water Friendly Farming aims to do just that.

How Water Friendly Farming will make a difference

Water Friendly Farming is one of the first projects to evaluate at the catchment scale the whole suite of land management measures that are being widely applied in lowland farmed landscapes. This includes: leaky dams to help control downstream flooding, buffer strips on river banks, settlement ponds, stream-side fencing to reduce livestock access to streams, woody debris dams, introducing soil and nutrient management techniques to reduce runoff, clean water ponds creation to maximise catchment-wide freshwater biodiversity and many others.

The project is being undertaken in a working agricultural landscape, and participation of, and feedback from, the farmers involved in the project is an integral part of the study: ensuring that the project has real-world relevance.

Two ponds in a field

- New clean water ponds created in the Water Friendly Farming project.

Sampling methods

1 Water Quality

Nitrate, total phosphorus, pH, conductivity have been collected over three from a stratified random sample of freshwater habitats across all landscapes to provide baseline data. In addition, ‘continuous’ monitoring has been undertaken at the furthermost downstream site in each catchment since the start of the project for nitrate, total phosphorus and suspended sediment with sampling intervals of 8-24 hours during storms.

2 Pesticides

Work on pesticides has included background level monitoring of the oil seed rape pesticides, carbetamide and propyzamide, and metaldehyde.

3 Aquatic biodiversity

From an annual stratified random sample of freshwater habitats (ponds, ditches, streams) across all catchments, surveying macrophytes, and macroinvertebrates. Most detailed analysis at present is for aquatic macrophytes with invertebrate sample processing in progress. With additional stream surveys are being undertaken to asses the impact of leaky dams. Fish abundance has been assessed using electro-fishing techniques to provide a baseline assessment of stream fish species present and their abundance.

4 Ecological Monitoring 

Assessments of stream condition have been made for Water Framework Directive including macrophytes, diatoms, fish and aquatic invertebrates. Ponds are being assessed using the Predictive System for Multimetrics (PSYM) based on macrophytes and aquatic invertebrates.

5 Catchment hydrology 

Long term, continuous monitoring of velocity, water depth and flow is undertaken using doppler shift system technology at sites positioned furthermost downstream locations in each catchment.

Mitigation measures

We’ve applied a range measures commonly used to mitigate the adverse impacts of agriculture on the freshwater environment across the two experimental catchments. The project’s results will provide a reality check determining the extent to which these measures, when fully applied, can be expected to deliver water quality improvements.

Combined effects of measures suggest that at the catchment scale we should be able to reduce phosphorus from diffuse sources by up to 50% at least in the short term (up to five years), reduce drain flow nitrogen by about 30%, and reduce sediments by as much as 75%. The project aims to intercept about 65% of the demonstration area field drains and ditch drainage before it enters a Water Framework Directive classified watercourse.

80% of the streams already had buffer strips whether from existing woodland or agri-environment schemes, and non-inversion tillage continues on 25% of the arable land. The objective of flow mitigation measures is to reduce the peak hydrograph in a 1:100 year flood to a level equivalent to a 1:75 year flood. There is evidence that such a reduction brings about significant economic benefits in terms of cost-benefit ratios for flood defence work, as it is cheaper to construct hold back water in the catchment than defend downstream areas (Farming Floodplains For The future, 2012).

We identified precise locations for water quality mitigation measures by a combination of the catchment modelling of risk areas and field-by-field walkovers. The location of flow interceptor ponds in this study was based on selecting the 25% of land that was most vulnerable to rapid water loss (i.e. the heaviest clays) with no more than one detention pond for every 8ha of land. Interception ponds have an average diameter of 22m and a depth of 2m, though area and depth varies according to the exact location. An average density of three ponds per km2 is required to achieve this.

We’ve created clean water ponds, which aim to maintain and enhance catchment biodiversity by creating habitats for uncommon macrophytes and aquatic invertebrates.

Baseline monitoring from the Water Friendly Farming project since 2011 has already provided important information about freshwaters at the landscape scale. Following the implementation of practical mitigation measures (2014 onwards) the main aim of the project now is monitoring the impact of changes we see, and using the results to help refine current freshwater management approaches in farming landscapes.