A year on from the launch of our Vitacress Farm Excellence

Vitacress launched Vitacress Farm Excellence on World Environment Day 2020 in partnership with LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) and Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT). Nearly a year on, our Environment Manager Leah Mathias-Collins, tells us what’s changed and more about this year’s theme - Ecosystem Restoration.

What are ecosystems and why are they important?
An ecosystem is a geographic area where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscape, work together to form life. Healthy ecosystems are important as they do many things – they purify our air, maintain our soil, regulate our climate, recycle nutrients and pollinate our crops. As the world’s population continues to grow, we rely on these healthy ecosystem ‘services’ more and more.

What progress has Vitacress made in the last twelve months?
We looked at ways we could enhance the ecosystems on our farms and across our sites by ensuring we have sustainable and resilient production systems. We did this by looking at the health of the soil on which we farm, the quality of the water we return to the river and by creating new and managing existing habitats to support biodiversity.

What are sustainable and resilient production systems?
The systems we use to grow our produce are reliant on healthy ecosystem services and soil health is critical to ensure resilient production. Good soil will support good microbiology and organic content. This will result in better water retention therefore more efficient irrigation, enhanced nutrient cycling, better carbon storage, reduced soil erosion and higher quality crops. But soil is not the only factor in sustainable growing systems.

Supporting biodiversity and water quality are also important factors. Creating and maintaining space for nature provides food and shelter for wildlife, including pollinators and other species providing natural pest control. Ensuring our watercress production systems discharge only clean water so that our precious chalk streams and rivers are able to support a wide range of biodiversity from the smallest invertebrates to the fish at the top of the food chain. This water can flow down to the sea and be taken into the groundwater system from which we draw our irrigation waters. Ensuring it is clean will provide us with clean and safe water in which to irrigate our crops.

How have we done this?
So far, we’ve done this in a couple of ways.

The first is a chalk stream regulating ecosystem service which helps with water cleansing. In 2018, we replaced 150 metres of underground pipework with a functioning chalk stream and planted native and local provenance marginal and instream plants at our St Mary Bourne site in Hampshire. The top part of the stream provides a natural filter of the water from our watercress farming operations, leading to crystal clear water and clean gravel beds in the stream lower down before the water exits the site.

The second example is the creation of a wildflower grassland which provides food for birds and pollinators. In autumn last year, we planted over half a hectare of bird and bumblebee wildflowers and grasses at our Abbotts Ann watercress farm, also in Hampshire. This meadow will provide food for farmland birds and nectar-feeding insects, such as butterflies, moths and bees. It will be coming into its full flowering glory shortly – let’s hope this warm weather continues!

What’s next for ecosystem restoration?
We have a lot of plans in place to restore ecosystem services including improving soil health, water quality and the creation and management of habitat. Ecosystems are incredibly important to our operations. We rely on the resources and services nature provides to enable us to grow strong and healthy crops, so it’s critical that we understand them and we work to ensure they are looked after for now and for the future.

What is LEAF Marque certification and why is it so important?
LEAF Marque certification is an outcomes-based approach to measuring environmental improvements through ecological appraisals and surveys. Along with individually tailored conservation management plans and bespoke LEAF Sustainable Reporting, specific action plans with agreed KPIs are put in place to ensure continuous improvement.

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