Work Package 1.3 - Biodiversity and Ecosystems
Researchers at the James Hutton Institute, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland are working together to provide scientific evidence to underpin the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy. At the core of our work is understanding how management actions interact with biodiversity to deliver the outcomes we want. This ranges from understanding how the genetic diversity in one crop can be exploited to make farming more resilient to restoring populations of rare mountain plants. In addition, we use this understanding to provide indicators of how healthy ecosystems are for use by policy makers.
Aim of Research
There remain large gaps in understanding how changes in management and the environment alter community composition and, hence, ecosystem functions. This Research Deliverable (RD) addresses how ecosystem functions are regulated by the traits of species present, and how potential limits for the maintenance of ecosystem function can be captured in ecosystem health metrics. It also has the aim of identifying indices of ecosystem function that can be applied to assess ecosystem health at a range of scales (from field to national) so that management actions can be targeted to improve ecosystem health and to conserve and restore biodiversity.
Research has been performed to understand the mechanisms underpinning diversity benefits in arable plant communities including an experiment testing mixtures (up to six species) of cereals (barley, wheat), oil seeds (oil seed rape, linseed) and legumes (pea, faba bean) to understand how trait diversity contributes to improved productivity. A paper was published from the 2016 field trial that showed that increasing the number of barley genotypes in a mixture reduced the available niche space for weeds. The fate of newly reintroduced populations of Cicerbita alpina (alpine sow-thistle) has been followed and it appears that identity of the source population is an important determinant of survival. Material to re-establish the native fern Woodsia ilvensis (oblong woodsia) is ready for testing for drought-resistance. Fieldwork observations have been carried out at Glen Finglas to establish how long-term differences in grazing influence food quality for invertebrates and birds and the accompanying lab work is underway. Research on bere barley work has identified genetic markers that influence micronutrient uptake, revealing genetic diversity in traditional landraces that could benefit commercial barley by improving growth in nutrient-deficient soils. Modelling research has shown that maintenance of within-species diversity of insect herbivores (aphid pests) depends on the efficiency of their natural enemies. WaderMap, an application to bring together data on wader conservation projects and other environmental data, was successfully received and sampling in the large-scale liming experiment carried out. The two new bryophyte-based Ecosystem Health Indicators were launched on SEWeb accompanied by a SEFARI case study and the publication of the associated paper. Work on western oakwoods showed that long-term declines in lichen diversity have occurred over the last 50 years, whilst new work is focussed on identifying new sites for woodland regeneration to maximise potential colonisation by woodland specialists.
- Long-term consequences of upland grazing: SEFARI scientists have demonstrated that likely changes in grazing levels in the uplands (e.g. in response to changes in agricultural support payments, profitability of upland farming and conservation priorities) can take many years to affect upland plant communities. Specifically, it took 15 years for the tripling of sheep numbers or the complete removal of sheep to impact on most species. Some communities were very resistant to change, particularly those most attractive to grazers, which had lost plant species capable of responding to reduced grazing levels.
- Natural enemy regulation of diversity in insect herbivores. SEFARI scientists have shown evidence for a novel mechanism that could be responsible for maintaining genetic diversity within aphid populations. Aphids frequently shown resistance to parasitism by parasitoid wasps but the reason why susceptible and resistant aphids coexist has never been explained. Modelling work has shown that this could come about if parasitoid wasps suffer a fitness cost when switching between different aphid types. These findings are important for targeted biological control of aphid pests.
- Monitoring biodiversity through citizen science: SEFARI scientists have analysed citizen science data to document a five-decade decline in species that are associated with Scotland’s ancient woodlands. This was used as evidence to the State of Nature Report 2019 Solutions to reverse the trend were identified and have been used to inform the new strategy of the Atlantic Woodland Alliance consortium. This includes targeting efforts to the expansion of existing woodlands with old-growth structure, and which include populations of dispersal-limited species.
- Towards truly sustainable agri-food value-chains: RESAS-supported research on legumes (e.g. peas and beans) was recently reported in partnership with the EU TRUE project in the outcome of an EU-wide ‘consensus opinion of stakeholders’ exercise. Three recommended action areas were identified to help realise more-sustainable legume-supported agri-food systems around: investment in agri-food and -feed research and knowledge transfer; reducing reliance on the use of inorganic nitrogen fertiliser; plus greater foci on nutrition, health policies and public campaigns that promote the inclusion of home-grown legumes in the human diet.
- A toast to reduce Scotland’s protein import dependency: RESAS-supported work to help realise more cropping of pulses (e.g. peas and beans) in Scotland, carried out in partnership with Scottish-based SMEs, revealed that the use of home-grown peas to make gin also provided a high-protein ‘co-product’ for animal feed. The pea co-product can offset animal feed imports, and the two high-value products were achieved with a reduced carbon footprint (compared to conventional wheat gin). A commercial product (World’s first climate-positive gin) will be launched in February shortly after World Pulses Day (FAO-UN, Feb 10th).
Year 3 progress included a successful analysis of the barley:weed drought study and a new experiment on barley:weed interactions. The Cicerbita alpina (Alpine blue sow-thistle) reintroduction work made great strides in understanding the role of genetic diversity and restoration success, whilst the bere barley work has initiated the transfer of genes into elite varieties to cope with alkaline soils. A new fieldwork approach looking at management cascades through different trophic levels has started successfully at Glen Finglas and The work on Ecosystem Health Indicators has progressed well and is nearly ready for launching on SEWeb. Due to the cold spring, sowing of the grassland diversification experiment was delayed until May when conditions were more suitable. However, the dry summer meant that germinations was slow and consequently no monitoring was carried out in summer 2018. Research into effects of lime addition on trophic interactions continued to progress well, including the ongoing monitoring of three experimental study sites to contribute data on the effects of lime addition on soil characteristics, earth worm abundance, sward productivity, and vegetation diversity. Combined with the baseline data and ongoing monitoring this will provide data for later analyses to better understand the effects of lime addition on the availability of key soil invertebrates for breeding waders.
- Public engagement for biosecurity: Research on plant and animal biosecurity from the RBGE, James Hutton Institute, Moredun Research Institute, and SRUC was distilled into an interactive, permanent public exhibit at the John Hope Gateway. SEFARI work is presented in a series of interactive panels demonstrating how plant and animal diseases move around the world, and actions the public can take to protect Scotland’s natural and economic assets. This exhibit is prominently placed in the entrance to the RBGE (694,000 international and local visitors in 2016), with portable panels in construction to further spread the message at public events across Scotland.
- Major new database on multi-scale plant diversity published: The James Hutton Institute was the main UK contributor to a new international database of vegetation data - GrassPlot. The difference between this database and others is that all the plot data were collected at multiple scales. The main aim of collecting and publishing these data is to facilitate studies on the scale- and taxon-dependency of biodiversity patterns and drivers along macroecological gradients. For instance, it will allow researchers to analyse how scale dependent relationships such as the species-area curve vary with climate.
- Importance of crop mixtures research brought to the fore through Parliamentary Reception and new publication: Research on potential benefits of crop mixtures for sustainable food production was highlighted during a SEFARI Showcase event at the Scottish Parliament. The event’s keynote address was given by the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing MSP. In addition, concepts developed through WP1.3 work on crop mixtures contributed to delivery of a new research paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This shows that some of the effects which might help to deliver benefits from crop mixtures evolve best in species rich plant communities, indicating benefits for sustainability from conserving species.
- Evolving for mixture benefits: Concepts developed through our crop mixtures work (RD1.3.1 and RD2.3.8) concerning the beneficial interactions between neighbouring species have contributed to delivery of a new research paper by Schöb et al. This study shows for the first time that some of the effects which help to deliver benefits from crop mixtures evolve best in a species rich plant community. Importantly this work demonstrates how higher diversity helps promote ecosystem functions, and that breeding for crop mixtures (a potential sustainable production approach) may need novel trait combinations which only emerge in species-rich systems.
- Establishing landraces as living heritage: SEFARI scientists in collaboration with Archaeologists from University of Sheffield have identified and confirmed the origins of barley landraces in the archaeological record using morphometrics and genetics, helping to establish its status as living heritage and helping secure its commercial future through providing the grain with heritage credentials that can be used in marketing of products.
- Ancient barley landraces adapted to marginal soils demonstrate exceptional tolerance to micronutrient limitation: SEFARI scientists in collaboration with University of Copenhagen and University of Highlands and Islands, Orkney have identified a unique Mn efficient phenotype in Bere landraces that can be potentially used to cope with micronutrient deficiencies seen in crops grown in marginal calcareous soils in the western and northern isles of Scotland and in many of the cereal producing lands on a global scale.
Year 2 progress included an experiment to investigate how increasing the genetic diversity of barley improved the tolerance of the crop to drought; this was not the case but increasing diversity suppressed weeds and reduced disease incidence. Alpine blue sow-thistle Cicerbita alpina was re-introduced into three new sites in the Cairngorms. The translocated populations include an experimental approach to test the resilience of different genotypes with the aim of increasing in situ seed-set (see Highlights below). Baseline data of the effects of lime addition to trophic interactions, in particular its impacts on potential invertebrate prey of wading birds, have been collected. Information on grass productivity and quality is also being collected. We have developed additional Ecosystem Health Indicators relating to nitrogen pollution and climate change based on moss and liverwort records in the National Biodiversity Network and their habitat preferences and provided initial results that will feed into the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy. Based on information on epiphyte species distributions, a report identifying priority areas for restoration has been used to inform the development of the Atlantic Woodland Alliance.
- Potential for crop improvement in marginal soils: New research has shown that extant barley landraces selected over many generations on marginal soils have adapted to tolerate soils with limited Manganese (Mn) availability. By contrast, modern elite varieties on similar soils fail to complete their lifecycle, due to their poor Mn efficiency. Landraces derived from regions with reduced soil fertility constitute a valuable resource of untapped adaptive genetic variation, with an opportunity to identify the key adaptive traits to underpin crop improvement in marginal soils.
- Rare plants may be helped by crops: A study investigating the interactions between a rare vascular plant - Valerianella rimosa - (broad fruited corn salad) and a barley crop has shown that the conditions found within the crop might help promote the establishment of the rare plant at the start of the growing season. When combined with the negative impact of the crop on common weeds, these findings indicate that crops may play a role in the conservation of some rare vascular plants by creating space in the farmland weed community.
- Reintroduction of a rare plant to the Cairngorms: Studies of genetic diversity in populations of the rare Alpine blue sow-thistle have enabled the reintroduction of the species at three new locations in the Cairngorms. Contributing to both the Cairngorms Nature Action Plan and Priority Project 9 of the 2020 Route Map for Scotland’s Biodiversity, the translocated populations included an experimental approach to test the resilience of different genotypes with the aim of increasing the viable seed-set.
- The destructive effects of Rhododendrons: Rhododendron ponticum shades out native understorey flora and has been the focus of removal by conservation groups. A paper on its effects in Celtic rainforests showed that even after removal of Rhododendron, woodlands did not automatically revert to their pre-invaded state; reseeding with native flowers and grasses is required to fully restore them. Media publicity included interviews for Radio Wales, Radio Scotland and Radio 4 (World at One) and reports in the Daily Mail, The Times, Horticulture Week, Sunday Post, Press and Journal, the Scotsman and others.
Progress in the Research Deliverable includes successful experiments on diversity-driven trophic interactions; these showed a postive relationship between weed species richness and barley productivity and that increasing barley diversity reduced weed performance through increased competition for light. Trials in Orkney and Dundee have been used to identify differnces in bere barley performance and potential useful traits to breed into modern barley cultivars. A long-term experiment assessing ecosystem effects of liming has been set up, with a particular focus on assessing the impact of liming on the provision of prey to wading birds, the improvement of quality and productivity of the grasslands and the impact of lime on soil carbon. Plant material to re-introduce Cicerbita alpina has been bred from extant Scottish and Norwegian populations; with propogation carried out to ensure no potential for disease spread. Analysis of a long-term experiment on trophic interactions in the uplands has revealed the importance of management on both insectivourous bird:invertebrate prey and predator:vole interactions. Collaboration with the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy indicators group has led to further refinement of the Natural Capital Asset Index. Connectivity work has produced indices of connectivity for woodlands in Scotland, used to start analyses of priority restoration sites for Atlantic Oak woodlands.
- A new paper in Plant Ecology & Diversity demonstrates how arable weed diversity has negative impacts on new plant species establishing (especially rare plant species).
- Workshop was held to improve collaboration between SRP research and major Scottish environmental indicators initiatives, including Ecosystem Health Indicators, Natural Capital Asset Index and the Soil Monitoring Action Plan; the outcome is an improved alignment of SRP research to end-user needs and which will support the future development of these initiatives.
- WP1.3 researchers helped deliver the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy Science Conference at RBGE in November. Over 100 delegates attended, including government, agencies, eNGOs and the public (further information here).
- The Ecosystems and Land Use Stakeholder Engagement Group (WP1.3 & 1.4) had its first meeting at Victoria Quay in November. Fifty-five stakeholders from government, agencies, Non-Governmental Organisations, membership organisations and universities attended and were engaged with ongoing work and identifying cooperation opportunities.
- Further development of the crop diversity work is underway to understand how diversity within a crop brings benefits for biodiversity and resilience, with a 2020 trial focussed on sowing patterns with barley, oats and beans. The Cicerbita alpina restoration trials will continue to be monitored to assess herbivore impacts and the long-term survival of plants of different parentage. Planting of Woodsia ilvensis is on hold due to the identification of a potential pathogen in the stock grown for planting out. The bere barley work will be extended by field trials of manganese efficient barley genotypes on the alkaline soils of Orkney as well as by a Marie Curie Fellow working on Ancient genetics (AGENT) - capturing signatures of nutrient stress tolerance from extant landraces to unlock the production potential of marginal lands. The work at Glen Finglas will be extended to develop functional trait-based models of the impact of management changes through trophic cascades. Work on wading birds will be extended to map areas of greatest decline in accompaniment to work to understand the relationships between management (liming) and prey availability. Research on the spatial targeting of woodland restoration will be developed to look at the potential for net gain through appropriate placement of new woodlands to improve connectivity.
- Brooker et al. (2017) Crop presence, but not genetic diversity, impacts on the rare arable plant Valerianella rimosa. Plant Ecology & Diversity(link is external)
- Popular articles on the role of diversity in cropping systems, restoration after rhododendron control and the strengths of heritage barley have been published in the Scottish Consortium for Rural Research Newsletter, Issue 89, Winter 2017(link is external).
- Mládková, P., Mládek, J., Hejduk, S., Hejcman, M. &Pakeman, R.J. (2018) Calcium plus magnesium indicates digestibility: the significance of the second major axis of plant chemical variation for ecological processes(link is external). Ecology Letters.
- Liming trial and predator monitoring work were presented at the "The Challenge of Marginal Land: efficient utilisation of the managed natural environment" workshop(link is external), Glensaugh, 13 Sept 2017.
- Schöb et al. (2018) Evolution of facilitation requires diverse communities(link is external) (Nature Ecology and Evolution).
- Brooker, R.W., Hewison, R., Mitchell, C., Newton, A.C., Pakeman, R.J., Schöb, C., Karley, A.J. (2018) The role of crop genetic diversity in determining plant community resilience to experimental drought(link is external).
- A film on Cicerbita alpina has been produced and is currently shown (June 2018 – open ended) at the John Hope Gateway, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh(link is external)..
- Williams, L. & Ellis, C.J. (2018) Ecological constraints to 'old-growth' lichen indicators: niche specialisation or dispersal limitation(link is external)? Fungal Ecology, 34: 20-27.
- Ellis, C.J. (2017) When is translocation required for the population recovery of old-growth epiphytes in a reforested landscape?(link is external) Restoration Ecology, 25: 922-932.
- Eaton at al. (2018) Adding small species to the big picture: species distribution modelling in an age of landscape scale conservation.(link is external) Biological Conservation, 217: 251-258.
- Eaton et al. (2018) A method for the direct detection of airborne dispersal in lichens(link is external). Molecular Ecology Resources, 18: 240-250.
- Ellis, C.J. & Eaton, S. (2018) The biogeography of climate change risk for Scotland’s woodland biodiversity: epiphytes(link is external). Scottish Geographical Journal, 134: 257-267.
- Pakeman, R.J.; Brooker, R.W.; Karley, A.J.; Newton, A.C.; Mitchell, C.; Hewison, R.L.; Pollenus, J.; Guy, D.C.; Schöb, C. (2020) Increased crop diversity reduces the functional space available for weeds. Weed Research 60: 121-131.
- Pakeman, R.J., Brooker, R.W., O'Brien, D. and Genney, D. (2019) Using species records and ecological attributes of bryophytes to develop an ecosystem health indicator. Ecological Indicators, 104, 127-136. The bryophyte indicator is now live on the SE Web platform: https://www.environment.gov.scot/
- Donnelly, D.; Fielding, D.; Newey, S. (2019) WaderMap: Collaboration and Cooperation in Action (Version 1.3).
- Ellis, C.J. & Coppins, B.J. (2019) Five decades of decline for old-growth indicator lichens in Scotland. Edinburgh Journal of Botany, 76, 319-331.
- Preedy, K.F., Chaplain, M.A., Leybourne, D.J., Marion, G. and Karley, A.J. (2020) Learning‐induced switching costs in a parasitoid can maintain diversity of host aphid phenotypes although biocontrol is destabilized under abiotic stress. Journal of Animal Ecology, 89, 1216-1229.
- Temesgen, D., Maluk, M., James, E. K., Iannetta, P. P. M., Assefa, F. 2019) The functional characterisation of soybean (Glycine max L.) rhizospheric bacteria indigenous to Ethiopian soils. African Journal of Agricultural Research 14, 1659-1673.
- Leybourne, D., Valentine T.A., Robertson, J.A.H., Pérez-Fernández, E., Main, A.M., Karley, A.J. & Bos, J.I.B. (2019) Defence gene expression and phloem quality contribute to mesophyll and phloem resistance against aphids in wild barley. Journal of Experimental Botany 70 (15), 4011-4026. doi: 10.1093/jxb/erz163.
- Schmidt, S.B., Hedley, P.E., George, T.S., Brown, L.K., Booth, A., Wishart, J., Martin, P., Russell, J. & Husted, S. (2019) Ancient barley landraces adapted to marginal soils demonstrate exceptional tolerance to manganese limitation. Annals of Botany, 123: 831–843.
- Wallace, M., Bonhomme, V., Russell, J. et al. (2019) Searching for the origins of bere barley: a geometric morphometric approach to cereal landrace recognition in archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method Theory, 26: 1125-1142