Restoring soil quality through re-integration of leys and sheep into arable rotations

Welcome to our research project!

Please use the panel on the left to navigate our webpage to find out more about our research, our field sites, meet the team, view our results and publications and to find our contact information.

Project Overview

The economic and environmental sustainability of UK arable farming is facing a crisis, caused in part by soil degradation as a result of continuous intensive cultivation. The use of ploughing and short rotations in which a small number of crops (especially wheat and oilseed rape) are grown with very high frequency with high reliance on inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides has led to loss of soil organic matter, compaction, reduced water-storage capacity and increased risks of water pollution from soil erosion and agro-chemicals, and reduced farm profitability. This has been compounded by the build-up of increasingly intractable herbicide resistant weeds in wheat such as blackgrass, and pesticide resistant insects such as flea beetle in oilseed rape in these short rotations.

To address these problems, some farmers are starting to return to mixed farming, reintroducing leys containing grass and clover, grazed by sheep, into arable rotations hoping this will improve soil quality, reduce weeds and diseases and boost profits, but without the critical evidence they need to guide these decisions.

Our multidisciplinary proposal directly addresses this industry-led research need. We recognize the urgent requirement to determine how best to restore soil quality, achieve good livestock production and economic returns through a comprehensive evaluation of the costs and benefits of such systems. Our goal is to provide the first comprehensive industry-informed, farmer-participatory assessment of soil quality, environmental and economic cost-benefits, farmer motivations and barriers to reintroducing sheep into arable rotations, focused on our most intensively cultivated areas of eastern England.

The 'Restoring soil quality through re-integration of leys and sheep into arable rotations' research project runs from 2019 to 2022. To find out more about our research trials and field sites, click on the 'Our Research' tab.

Research Aims

Our project aims to answer five key research questions:

  1. Are herbal leys better than traditional grass-clover leys for restoring soil quality and functions in long-term arable land?
  2. Are herb-rich leys better than traditional grass-clover leys for sheep production on arable land – both practically and economically?
  3. Are gross margins better for arable crops after 2-year herb-rich leys than traditional grass-clover leys?
  4. Does soil quality improve faster using mown rather than sheep-grazed leys and how do they compare economically and in terms of wider ecosystem service benefits such as reduced flood and pollution risks?
  5. Does the use of direct drilling on conversion from ley-to-arable and in subsequent cropping increase the benefits of soil quality improvements and crop production margins achieved by leys than use of ploughing or shallow disc cultivation?

Research Partners

The project is led by the University of Sheffield in collaboration with the NIAB Innovation Farm, Bangor University, Rothamsted Research, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UK-CEH), University of Birmingham, and Heriot Watt University.

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Industry Partners

Our industry partners include Cotswold Seeds, National Sheep Association, Yorkshire Water, NRM Cawood Scientific, and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

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This work was supported by funding provided by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council under the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Innovation Club (SARIC) programme (BB/R021716/1). We would also like to thank our Industry Partners, project farmers, and Bangor University’s Henfaes Research Farm team for their support. 

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