• The Agrodiversity Experiment: three years of data from a multisite study in intensively managed grasslands

      Kirwan, Laura; Connolly, John; Brophy, Caroline; Baadshaug, Ole; Belanger, Gilles; Black, Alistair D; Camus, Tim; Collins, Rosemary; Cop, Jure; Delgado, Ignacio; De Vliegher, Alex; Elgersma, Anjo; Frankow-Lindberg, Bodil; Golinski, Piotr; Grieu, Philippe; Gustavsson, Anne-Maj; Helgadottir, Aslaug; Hoglind, Mats; Huguenin-Elie, Olivier; Jorgensen, Marit; Kadziuliene, Zydre; Lunnan, Tor; Luscher, Andreas; Kurki, Paivi; Porqueddu, Claudio; Sebastia, M.-Teresa; Thumm, Ulrich; Walmsley, David; Finn, John A. (Ecological Society of America, 2014-06-11)
      Intensively managed grasslands are globally prominent ecosystems. We investigated whether experimental increases in plant diversity in intensively managed grassland communities can increase their resource use efficiency. This work consisted of a coordinated, continental-scale 33-site experiment. The core design was 30 plots, representing 15 grassland communities at two seeding densities. The 15 communities were comprised of four monocultures (two grasses and two legumes) and 11 four-species mixtures that varied in the relative abundance of the four species at sowing. There were 1028 plots in the core experiment, with another 572 plots sown for additional treatments. Sites agreed a protocol and employed the same experimental methods with certain plot management factors, such as seeding rates and number of cuts, determined by local practice. The four species used at a site depended on geographical location, but the species were chosen according to four functional traits: a fast-establishing grass, a slow-establishing persistent grass, a fast-establishing legume, and a slow-establishing persistent legume. As the objective was to maximize yield for intensive grassland production, the species chosen were all high-yielding agronomic species. The data set contains species-specific biomass measurements (yield per species and of weeds) for all harvests for up to four years at 33 sites. Samples of harvested vegetation were also analyzed for forage quality at 26 sites. Analyses showed that the yield of the mixtures exceeded that of the average monoculture in >97% of comparisons. Mixture biomass also exceeded that of the best monoculture (transgressive overyielding) at about 60% of sites. There was also a positive relationship between the diversity of the communities and aboveground biomass that was consistent across sites and persisted for three years. Weed invasion in mixtures was very much less than that in monocultures. These data should be of interest to ecologists studying relationships between diversity and ecosystem function and to agronomists interested in sustainable intensification. The large spatial scale of the sites provides opportunity for analyses across spatial (and temporal) scales. The database can also complement existing databases and meta-analyses on biodiversity–ecosystem function relationships in natural communities by focusing on those same relationships within intensively managed agricultural grasslands.
    • Botanical rejuvenation of field margins and benefits for invertebrate fauna on a drystock farm in County Longford

      Sheridan, H.; Finn, John A.; O'Donovan, G. (Royal Irish Academy, 2009-07-30)
      This study investigates methods to rejuvenate the fl ora of previously degraded fi eld margins on a pastoral farm in County Longford. We also assess the effects of individual treatments on the abundance of various orders of invertebrates recorded within the experimental plots. Field margin treatments were 1.5m-wide unfenced control margins, 1.5m-wide fenced margins or 3.5m-wide fenced margins. Nutrient inputs were excluded from all of the experimental plots. The botanical composition of the plots was examined on four occasions between 2002 and 2004 using permanent, nested quadrats. Emergence traps were used to measure invertebrate abundance within treatment plots and the main sward. Results indicated that 1) exclusion of nutrient inputs had a positive effect on plant species richness within the fi eld margins; 2) plant species richness decreased with increased distance from the hedgerow; 3) herb species richness was greatest in the 1.5m closest to the hedgerow; 4) greater abundance of invertebrates occurred within the 3.5m-wide margins; 5) successful control of Pteridium aquilinum was achieved through spot treatment with the selective herbicide ‘Asulox’; and 6) a combination of management techniques such as cutting and grazing is likely to enhance plant species richness and facilitate the structural diversity of vegetation that is necessary for many invertebrate taxa.
    • Conserving Farmland Biodiversity – Lessons learned and future prospects

      O hUallachain, Daire; Finn, John A. (School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine, University College Dublin in association with Teagasc, 2011)
      A conference Conserving Farmland Biodiversity: Lessons learned and future prospects was held in Wexford, Ireland on the 25th and 26th of May 2011. Through a combination of keynote presentations and theatre presentations, delegates were informed of latest developments in policy and research relevant to farmland biodiversity in Ireland. Four main broad categories dominated the content of the conference: agricultural policy, agri-environment schemes, High Nature Value farming systems, and a variety of case studies that assessed the success of specific conservation actions. As the European Union refocuses its commitment to halting biodiversity loss, reform of the post-2013 CAP is proceeding with an increased emphasis on environmental goals. This conference provided a timely discussion of these policies, and the conservation needs and actions for Irish habitats and species. Here we provide a summary of the main themes and issues presented at the conference.
    • Ecosystem function enhanced by combining four functional types of plant species in intensively-managed grassland mixtures: a three-year continental-scale field experiment

      Finn, John A.; Kirwan, Laura; Connolly, John; Sebastià, Maria Teresa; Helgadottir, Aslaug; Baadshaug, Ole Hans; Bélanger, Gilles; Black, Alistair D; Brophy, Caroline; Collins, Rosemary P.; Čop, Jure; Dalmannsdóttir, Sigridur; Delgado, Ignacio; Elgersma, Anjo; Fothergill, Michael; Frankow-Lindberg, Bodil E.; Ghesquiere, An; Golinska, Barbara; Golinski, Piotr; Grieu, Philippe; Gustavsson, Anne-Maj; Höglind, Mats; Huguenin-Elie, Olivier; Jørgensen, Marit; Kadziuliene, Zydre; Kurki, Paivi; Llurba, Rosa; Lunnan, Tor; Porqueddu, Claudio; Suter, Matthias; Thumm, Ulrich; Lüscher, Andreas (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013-02-22)
      1. A co-ordinated continental-scale field experiment across 31 sites was used to compare the biomass yield of monocultures and four-species mixtures associated with intensively managed agricultural grassland systems. To increase complementarity in resource use, each of the four species in the experimental design represented a distinct functional type derived from two levels of each of two functional traits, nitrogen acquisition (N2-fixing legume or non-fixing grass) crossed with temporal development (fast-establishing or temporally persistent). Relative abundances of the four functional types in mixtures were systematically varied at sowing to vary the evenness of the same four species in mixture communities at each site, and sown at two levels of seed density. 2. Across multiple years, the total yield (including weed biomass) of the mixtures exceeded that of the average monoculture in >97% of comparisons. It also exceeded that of the best monoculture (transgressive overyielding) in about 60% of sites, with a mean yield ratio of mixture to best-performing monoculture of 1.07 across all sites. Analyses based on yield of sown species only (excluding weed biomass) demonstrated considerably greater transgressive overyielding (significant at about 70% of sites, ratio of mixture to best-performing monoculture = 1.18). 3. Mixtures maintained a resistance to weed invasion over at least three years. In mixtures, median values indicate <4% of weed biomass in total yield, whereas the median percentage of weeds in monocultures increased from 15% in year 1 to 32% in year 3. 4. Within each year, there was a highly significant relationship (P<0.0001) between sward evenness and the diversity effect (excess of mixture performance over that predicted from the monoculture performances of component species). At lower evenness values, increases in community evenness resulted in an increased diversity effect, but the diversity effect was not significantly different from the maximum diversity effect across a wide range of higher evenness values. The latter indicates the robustness of the diversity effect to changes in species’ relative abundances. 5. Across sites with three complete years of data (24 of the 31 sites), the effect of interactions between the fast-establishing and temporal persistent trait levels of temporal development was highly significant and comparable in magnitude to effects of interactions between N2-fixing and non-fixing trait levels of nitrogen acquisition. 6. Synthesis and applications. The design of grassland mixtures is relevant to farm-level strategies to achieve sustainable intensification. Experimental evidence indicated significant yield benefits of four-species agronomic mixtures which yielded more than the highest-yielding monoculture at most sites. The results are relevant for agricultural practice, and show how grassland mixtures can be designed to improve resource complementarity, increase yields and reduce weed invasion. The yield benefits were robust to considerable changes in the relative proportions of the four species, which is extremely useful for practical management of grassland swards.
    • Effects of multi-species swards on dry matter production and the incidence of unsown species at three Irish sites

      Connolly, J.; Finn, John A.; Black, Alistair D; Kirwan, L.; Brophy, C.; Luscher, A. (Teagasc (Agriculture and Food Development Authority), Ireland, 2009)
      Recent ecological research provides evidence that an increased number of plant species in natural grasslands is associated with increased biomass productivity, and provides a wide range of other ecosystem benefits. This suggests that increases in species diversity in agricultural ecosystems may similarly lead to increased benefits. The work reported below was part of the COST 852 Agrodiversity experiment, carried out at 34 sites across Europe. In Ireland, the effects of four-species grass-clover mixtures on herbage production, species persistence and unsown species suppression at three sites over multiple years, were investigated under growing conditions that were intensive relative to unfertilised natural grassland systems. The design included a range of four-species mixtures and monocultures of perennial ryegrass, timothy, cocksfoot, white clover, red clover and Caucasian clover. Several harvests were taken at each site for two or three years. Species diversity had a strong, persistent and positive effect on overall yield and the yield of sown species, and enhanced resistance to the growth of unsown species. Mixtures generally yielded well when compared with the best monoculture, and sometimes out yielded it. These effects on total yield declined over time but were still important at the end of the experiments. The diversity effects on sown species yield and on resistance to unsown species increased with time. Diversity effects were robust to changes in species composition, and persisted for the duration of the experiments across mixtures and over time. Virtually every mixture had a higher yield, and suppressed unsown species better, than monocultures of perennial ryegrass. These patterns were broadly consistent across sites. The persistence of species varied widely and was not consistent across sites.
    • Field boundary habitats and their contribution to the area of semi-natural habitats on lowland farms in east Galway, western Ireland

      Sullivan, Caroline A; Finn, John A.; Gormally, Mike J; Sheehy Skeffington, Micheline (Royal Irish Academy, 2013-11-07)
      Sustainable agriculture and the provision of environmental public goods are key deliverables for European farming and food production. Farmland biodiversity, cultural landscapes, soil functionality and climate stability are among the environmental public goods provided through agriculture. Future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) direct payments are intended to be more targeted at the provision of these agricultural deliverables. Field boundaries are an example of such deliverables. They are widespread features that have both environmental and aesthetic functions in farmed landscapes. However, research on their variety, density and contribution to semi-natural habitat cover on farms in Ireland is lacking. This study investigates the diversity and density of all field boundary habitat types on 32 lowland farms in east County Galway, western Ireland. A total of 286km of field boundaries were surveyed across six study sites. Five types of field boundary habitats were recorded. The density of field boundaries on the farms studied was high and could have positive implications for delivery of environmental public goods and sustainable farming metrics. In more intensively farmed areas, field boundaries were the only remaining semi-natural habitat on some farms highlighting the need to retain, and improve the ecological quality, of these features. The condition of one field boundary type (hedgerows) was also investigated in further detail. While the density of field boundaries was high on many of the surveyed farms, we found that the hedgerows on these farms were not necessarily in good condition for wildlife.
    • Grassland vegetation from three conservation measures

      O'hUallachain, Daire; Finn, John A.; Keogh, Blathnaid; Finch, Rochelle; Sheridan, Helen (Teagasc, 2017)
      Semi-natural grassland habitats have declined significantly throughout Europe. To halt the decline, grassland conservation measures have been included in most European agri-environment schemes. This is the first study to compare the botanical composition of grassland habitats managed under the Irish Agri Environment Options Scheme (AEOS). Sixty fields on dry stock pastoral farms in receipt of agri-environment payments for grassland conservation were surveyed, with twenty fields being enrolled in each of the following AEOS options: Traditional Hay Meadow (THM), Species Rich Grassland (SRG) and Natura 2000 species rich grassland (Natura). The vegetation quality of sites enrolled in the Natura measure was higher than those enrolled in the THM and SRG measures. Natura sites had the greatest species richness with a mean > 40 species per site, which included approximately 17 species indicative of high botanical quality. Traditional Hay Meadow sites had the lowest species richness (mean 29 species per site) and were dominated by species associated with improved grassland. Some THM sites had good levels of botanical richness and were similar in composition to Natura sites, with some Natura sites having a lower vegetation quality, more similar to that of THM sites. Species Rich Grassland had a botanical richness that was intermediate between THM and Natura sites. A thorough assessment of the effectiveness of these measures was confounded by a lack of quantitative objectives for the target community composition to be attained. We discuss limitations and potential opportunities regarding the design, targeting, implementation and cost-effectiveness of these agri-environment measures.
    • Identification Of Environmental Variables For Use In Monitoring For The Evaluation Of The Rural Environment Protection Scheme

      Finn, John A.; Kavanagh, B.; Flynn, M. (Teagasc, 2005-04-01)
      The aim of this study was to identify and select quantitative environmental attributes for a monitoring programme that may be integrated into an environmental evaluation of Ireland’s agri-environmental scheme. This was achieved primarily by reviewing a range of agri-environmental indicators and suggesting indicators that would be appropriate for monitoring the REPS. The study conducted a desk review to collate information on current best practice in monitoring for environmental quality. A Project Group (comprising representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], Department of Agriculture and Food [DAF], Teagasc, and the project supervisors) advised on the ongoing development of the project. There was a consultation process with national experts, and with a selection of stakeholder organisations with an interest in monitoring the environmental impact of the REPS.
    • Methodological tests of the use of trace elements as tracers to assess root activity

      Hoekstra, Nyncke J; Finn, John A.; Buchmann, N.; Gockele, A.; Landert, L.; Prill, N.; Scherer- Lorenzen, M.; Luscher, L. (Springer, 2014-03)
      Background and aims There is increasing interest in how resource utilisation in grassland ecosystems is affected by changes in plant diversity and abiotic conditions. Research to date has mainly focussed on aboveground responses and there is limited insight into belowground processes. The aim of this study was to test a number of assumptions for the valid use of the trace elements caesium, lithium, rubidium and strontium as tracers to assess the root activity of several grassland species. Methods We carried out a series of experiments addressing the reliability of soil labelling, injection density, incubation time, application rate and the comparability of different tracers in a multiple tracer method. Results The results indicate that it is possible to achieve a reliable labelling of soil depths. Tracer injection density affected the variability but not the mean level of plant tracer concentrations. Tracer application rates should be based on pilot studies, because of site- and species-specific responses. The trace elements did not meet prerequisites to be used in a multiple tracer method. Conclusions The use of trace elements as tracers is potentially a very useful tool to give insight into plant root activity at different soil depths. This work highlights some of the main benefits and pitfalls of the method and provides specific recommendations to assist the design of tracer experiments and interpretation of the results.
    • Methodology for environmental assessment of agri-environment schemes: the Agri Environmental Footprint Index

      Finn, John A.; Louwagie, G.; Northey, G.; Purvis, G.; Balazs, K.; Mortimer, S.R.; Primdahl, J.; Vesterager, J.-P.; AE-Footprint project (Teagasc, 2010-11-01)
      Agri-environment schemes pay farmers for the provision of environmental services. Such schemes tend to have multiple measures that deliver multiple environmental objectives, and there is a lack of consistent methodology with which to measure the environmental benefits of such schemes. Funded by EU FP6, the Agri-Environment Footprint project (www.footprint.rdg.ac.uk) aimed to address this challenge, and this report provides results from selected components of the project.
    • Multiple factors control the environmental effectiveness of agri-environment schemes: implications for design and evaluation

      Finn, John A.; Kurz, Isabelle; Bourke, David (School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine, University College Dublin in association with Teagasc, 2008)
      Achieving and evaluating the environmental effectiveness of agri-environment schemes (AESs) has proven difficult. The design and ex ante evaluation of AESs is a crucial phase for ensuring effectiveness, but seems to receive relatively little attention. We propose a programme theory (a structured description of the various cause-and-effect relationships that underpin and achieve a policy initiative) for AESs that considers multiple factors that drive environmental performance at farm-scale (appropriate farm-level objectives, farmer compliance, implementation by institutions, and cause-and-effect relationship between management prescriptions and environmental objectives), and factors that determine how farm-scale performance aggregates to produce scheme-scale performance (participation rate, targeting, and threshold effects). These factors can be used as assessment criteria with which to pinpoint specific causes of AES failure, and thereby offer a practical approach to complement the design and evaluation of the environmental effects of AESs.
    • Nitrogen yield advantage from grass-legume mixtures is robust over a wide range of legume proportions and environmental conditions

      Suter, M.; Connolly, J.; Finn, John A.; Loges, R.; Kirwan, L.; Sebastia, M.T.; Luscher, A. (Wiley, 2015-01-28)
      Current challenges to global food security require sustainable intensification of agriculture through initiatives that include more efficient use of nitrogen (N), increased protein self-sufficiency through home-grown crops, and reduced N losses to the environment. Such challenges were addressed in a continental-scale field experiment conducted over three years, in which the amount of total nitrogen yield (Ntot) and the gain of N yield in mixtures as compared to grass monocultures (Ngainmix) was quantified from four-species grass-legume stands with greatly varying legume proportions. Stands consisted of monocultures and mixtures of two N2 fixing legumes and two non-fixing grasses.The amount of Ntot of mixtures was significantly greater (P ≤ 0.05) than that of grass monocultures at the majority of evaluated sites in all three years. Ntot and thus Ngainmix increased with increasing legume proportion up to one third of legumes. With higher legume percentages, Ntot and Ngainmix did not continue to increase. Thus, across sites and years, mixtures with one third proportion of legumes attained ~95% of the maximum Ntot acquired by any stand and had 57% higher Ntot than grass monocultures.Realized legume proportion in stands and the relative N gain in mixture (Ngainmix/Ntot in mixture) were most severely impaired by minimum site temperature (R = 0.70, P = 0.003 for legume proportion; R = 0.64, P = 0.010 for Ngainmix/Ntot in mixture). Nevertheless, the relative N gain in mixture was not correlated to site productivity (P = 0.500), suggesting that, within climatic restrictions, balanced grass-legume mixtures can benefit from comparable relative gains in N yield across largely differing productivity levels.We conclude that the use of grass-legume mixtures can substantially contribute to resource-efficient agricultural grassland systems over a wide range of productivity levels, implying important savings in N fertilizers and thus greenhouse gas emissions and a considerable potential for climate change mitigation.
    • A review of evidence on the environmental impact of Ireland’s Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS)

      Finn, John A.; O hUallachain, Daire (Royal Irish Academy, 2012-04)
      Since its inception in 1994, there has been strong demand for evidence of the environmental effectiveness of the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS), which paid farmers in the Republic of Ireland over €3 billion by 2010. A variety of research projects have been undertaken that investigate the environmental effects of REPS through an examination of either specific environmental measures or specific geographical areas. A review of available publications confirmed the absence of a comprehensive, national-scale study of the environmental impacts of REPS. Because of this, there is insufficient evidence with which to judge the environmental effectiveness of the national-scale implementation of the whole scheme. For some specific measures, however, sufficient evidence is available to inform an objective assessment in some cases, and to help learn how to improve environmental effectiveness in most cases. The majority of the REPS payments are now dedicated toward biodiversity objectives. Thus, biodiversity measures and options should be a priority for any national-scale environmental assessment of the scheme. Such a study would help identify the environmental benefits of REPS, the specific elements of REPS that are performing adequately, and those elements that are in need of improvement. Given the considerable overlap between REPS measures and options and those included in the 2010 Agri-Environment Options Scheme (AEOS), assessment of REPS measures could also be used to inform the likely environmental performance of the AEOS.
    • What Does Life-Cycle Assessment of agricultural products need for more meaningful inclusion of biodiversity?

      Teillard, Felix; Maia de Souza, Danielle; Thoma, Greg; Gerber, Pierre J.; Finn, John A. (Wiley, 2016-06-05)
      1.Decision-makers increasingly use life-cycle assessment (LCA) as a tool to measure the environmental sustainability of products. LCA is of particular importance in globalized agricultural supply chains, which have environmental effects in multiple and spatially dispersed locations. 2.Incorporation of impacts on biodiversity that arise from agricultural production systems into environmental assessment methods is an emerging area of work in LCA, and current approaches have limitations, including the need for (i) improved assessment of impacts to biodiversity associated with agricultural production, (ii) inclusion of new biodiversity indicators (e.g. conservation value, functional diversity, ecosystem services) and (iii) inclusion of previously unaccounted modelling variables that go beyond land-use impacts (e.g. climate change, water and soil quality). 3.Synthesis and applications. Ecological models and understanding can contribute to address the limitations of current life-cycle assessment (LCA) methods in agricultural production systems and to make them more ecologically relevant. This will be necessary to ensure that biodiversity is not neglected in decision-making that relies on LCA.
    • Yield of temperate forage grassland species is either largely resistant or resilient to experimental summer drought

      Hofer, Daniel; Suter, Matthias; Haughey, Eamon; Finn, John A.; Hoekstra, Nyncke J.; Buchman, Nina; Luscher, Andreas (Wiley, 2016-06-17)
      1.Due to climate change, an increasing frequency and severity of drought events are expected to impair grassland productivity, particularly of intensively managed temperate grasslands. 2.To assess drought impacts, a common field experiment to manipulate precipitation was set up at three sites (two Swiss and one Irish) using monocultures and mixtures with two and four key forage species. Species differed in their functional traits: a shallow-rooted non-legume (Lolium perenne L.), a deep-rooted non-legume (Cichorium intybus L.), a shallow-rooted legume (Trifolium repens L.) and a deep-rooted legume (Trifolium pratense L.). A 9-week summer drought was simulated, and soil water status, above-ground biomass yield and plant nitrogen (N) limitation were compared to a rainfed control. 3.Based on soil water measurements, the drought induced severe stress at both Swiss sites and extreme stress at the Irish site. Under severe stress, the legumes were more drought resistant and showed an average change in above-ground biomass (CAB, compared to rainfed control) of only −8% and −24% (for the two Swiss sites), while the non-legumes had an average CAB of −51% and −68%. The lower resistance of non-legumes coincided with an apparent limitation of plant N, which further increased under drought. Under extreme drought (Irish site), growth nearly ceased with an average CAB of −85%. 4.During a 6-week post-drought period with adequate water supply (Swiss sites), formerly drought-stressed species were highly resilient and either attained (legumes) or clearly outperformed (non-legumes) the yield level of the rainfed controls. This outperformance coincided with post-drought reductions in N limitation in formerly drought-stressed species. As a result, aggregated over the drought and the post-drought periods, a negative drought impact was found only for the shallow-rooted L. perenne at one of the severely stressed sites. 5.Significant overyielding by multispecies mixtures was evident under rainfed control conditions (+38% across all three sites, P < 0·05) and was equally apparent under severe drought (+50%, P < 0·05). This overyielding was greatest in mixtures with approximately equal species proportions and was sufficiently large that drought-stressed mixtures at least attained the same yield as the average of the rainfed monocultures. Under extreme drought, growth almost ceased in monocultures and mixtures. 6.Synthesis and applications. Yields of selected species of intensively managed temperate grasslands are either resistant to a single severe drought or are highly resilient as soon as soil moisture levels recover after the drought event. However, these forage species seem unable to cope with an extreme drought event. Combining species in mixtures can compensate for yield reductions caused by severe drought and it offers a practical management tool to adapt forage production to climate change.