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Biodiversity and ecosystem functions

Work Package 1.3 - Biodiversity and Ecosystems

Research Deliverable 
1.3.1 Biodiversity and ecosystem function
Leading Ideas 
Agriculture
Climate and the Environment

Introduction

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.

Progress

2018 / 2019
2018 / 2019

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.

Highlights:

  • 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.

 

2017 / 2018
2017 / 2018

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.

Highlights:

  • 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.
2016 / 2017
2016 / 2017

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.

Highlights:

  • 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.

Future Activities

  • There will be continued development of the crop diversity work to understand the benefits of building diversity within a crop on biodiversity and resilience; including the use of structural equation modelling to test the importance of different mechanisms.
  • The Cicerbita alpina restoration trials will be monitored to assess the impacts of herbivores and the long-term survival of plants of different parentage. Restoration efforts will be extended to include the rare fern Woodsia ilvensis.
  • The bere barley work will be extended by field trials of manganese efficient barley strains on the alkaline soils of Orkney alkaline.
  • 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 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.

Selected Outputs