In this issue of Sphere there is a lot of ground to cover. There has been a recent update to Environment Systems Data Services. Agriculture is one sector where being able to provide analysis ready data is having a big impact, enabling growers to improve their management decisions through a better understanding of their crops. The Opti-Oat project, covered in this issue is a great example. Elsewhere we catch up with our Ecology team carrying out bat surveys and providing the evidence to enable prospecting to restart in disused gold mines in Wales. On another project we cover the monitoring work we are undertaking for the sustainable management of the Gwent Levels. Climate Change is very much in the news these days but has been the focus of much of our work for some time. Finally we have a lot of new starters, the majority joining our agricultural monitoring team but we also have a new Ecologist, it is getting busier here in Aberystwyth!
Opti-Oat – Data Driven Agriculture
The humble oat has become something of a rising star in recent years, certainly among consumers, who are discovering its multiple health benefits. Oats are nutritious, rich in antioxidants, with large amounts of beta- glucan, a type of soluble fibre that’s great for digestion, reduced blood sugar and insulin response, and there’s much more.
The result is a growing market but a shortfall in supply as growers are more likely to opt for other crops such as wheat or barley which promise greater cash returns. One way to meet demand and address the shortfall is to increase growers’ yields in places where oats are already grown. This has been the focus of a 4 year research project, Opti-Oat, by a PepsiCo led consortium with co-funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Innovate UK. Environment Systems as a member of this consortium has been playing a major role.
There is a noticeable difference in the average farm yield for the oat crop across the UK, as much as 4t/ha in some instances. The project has now delivered a portfolio of world-leading agronomic tools to enable oat producers to maximise their returns. Specifically there were three interlinked objectives, now delivered:
- Development of an innovative satellite and UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) remote sensing data service that would
deliver ready to use quantifiable crop intelligence to optimise management for yield and quality across all fields
- Development of an ‘Oat Growth Model’ with support tools that enable targeted inputs at specific growth stages to maximise yield and improve quality
- Production of a comprehensive ‘Oat Growth Guide’ aimed at improving the physiology and development of the UK oat crop
The Oat Growth Guide was launched by Pepsico at the Cereals event earlier in this summer with the aim of raising yields by 5-10% to meet the rising demand for milling oats. The Growth Guide contains benchmarks that can be used to monitor both winter and spring oat crops. The guide’s growth and development targets were based on statistics gathered from 120 commercial crops and 60 reference crops, grown across the UK over four seasons.
In 2019 Environment Systems working closely with PepsiCo will be providing oat data services including satellite derived image data capture focused on specific oat growing areas, using specialised algorithms to convert the multispectral data into crop metrics, which will leverage the oat crop model to deliver:
- Precise assessment of crop growth stage and condition across fields
- Input for the crop model to predict yield
- Evidence to support performance optimisation interventions
The regular supply of up-to-date data will help growers to monitor their fields, and provide timely insights that enable them to make smart decisions, such as targeting inputs across fields and zones within them. Being able to deliver these data insights directly into established farm management software applications is key to uptake and success.
During the Opti-Oat project, Environment Systems was involved in the deployment of UAS data capture systems for the analysis of oat crop variety trials. We have now developed a range of highly specific algorithms to analyse the very high resolution multispectral imagery that the UAS platforms are now capable of delivering to help continuously improve oat varieties.
Moving forwards, the learnings from Opti- Oat in the UK are likely to be transferred to other geographic regions whilst the skills and knowledge, particularly with respect to crop physiology, developed in coordination with other consortium members are likely to impact further research into other crop types such as wheat and barley; a triumph for data driven agriculture.
Clogau Gold Mine
‘There’s gold in them thar hills’ and apparently it’s still there! The Clogau gold mine, 6.5 km north west of Dolgellau, was last worked in 1998 when the cost of extraction exceeded the income from the gold produced. New and more stringent environmental management requirements were also a factor. Now that the economics have changed and the environmental management of mines are better understood, the extraction of gold is once again an attractive proposition. Gold Mines of Wales (GMoW) is taking steps to explore the possibilities with a view to re-opening this mine and a number of others in the Dolgellau Gold Belt.
Since its closure, the Clogau Mine has become a haven for a number swarming and hibernating bats, which means that GMoW has had to apply for a European Protected Species (EPS) license for temporary planned works, to rehabilitate and make the mine safe. Specifically, the works set out to clear a rockfall near the entrance to one of the adits, repair floors and install safety handrails and create a second means of egress for safety. This will enable stockpiled rock and targeted drill sampling to support estimates of the amount of gold available as well as waste rock and water sampling. These works are required to develop an operational plan for the mine compliant with the Mine Regulations 2014 and provide sufficient information to complete an Environmental Impact Assessment prior to the submission of a planning application for the future operation of the mine.
Environment Systems’ team of Ecologists was commissioned to carry out bat surveys in 2018 and 2019 to identify the use of the planned work zones by bats and to design mitigation measures as necessary. This included swarming surveys using harp traps, mist nets, automated detectors and hibernation surveys. During the hibernation surveys lesser horseshoe bats and Natterer’s bats were detected and swarming bats surveys detected several other species. It was evident that the planned works would result in the disturbance of roosting bats. The mitigation measures put forward will be beneficial, in the long-term, to the bat species encountered on site by retaining flight routes to underground hibernation areas and retaining habitat above ground to support swarming.
As well as the swarming and hibernation surveys, a Preliminary Ecological Appraisal (PEA) which included an Extended Phase 1 Habitat Survey was undertaken of the land surrounding the mine which consists predominantly of livestock pasture, coniferous timber plantations and natural woodland. Marshy grassland and wetlands associated with the nearby Mawddach estuary also come into play. This mosaic of habitats provides a range of places for bats and other protected and priority wildlife to shelter, breed and feed. The mine itself is likely to be part of the ecological network that supports bats. For this reason, open spatial data were used to carry out an assessment of connectivity resilience between known breeding roost sites and the mine.
The application for the EPS license was successful and, at the time of writing, the preliminary repair work is underway with GMoW complying with the Mine Regulations 2014 and HSE health and safety requirements for working the mine. Works are specifically planned to avoid the period when bats are expected to be found using the mine for hibernating with a review of the gold and rock sampling results to guide the next steps.
GMoW has submitted a pre-application enquiry to the Mineral Planning Authority. Once the preliminary work is complete the Environment Systems’ Ecology team are expecting to carry out further surveys in the coming autumn and winter months as part of the steps required to complete an Ecological Impact Assessment (EcIA); a necessary precursor to a full planning application and the sustainable re-development of the mine.
Monitoring the Sustainable Management of the Gwent Levels
The Caldicot and Wentlooge Levels collectively known as the Gwent Levels comprises two areas of low lying wetland and mudflats adjoining the north bank of the Severn Estuary, either side of the River Usk estuary near Newport in south east Wales. The Gwent Levels is one of the largest areas of reclaimed grassland in the UK; its unique landscape has evolved over hundreds of years and is recognised for its archaeological remains and the distinct field patterns first reclaimed from the sea by the Romans. The area is important for biodiversity, recreation, ecosystem services such as flood alleviation, carbon storage and food production. It is also culturally important to the communities that live there. Currently a Welsh Government funded sustainable management scheme (SMS) is in place, a project managed by the RSPB entitled ‘Sustaining The Gwent Levels.’ The project forms part of the larger Living Levels National Heritage Lottery Fund programme on the Gwent Levels.
Both the SMS Sustaining the Levels project and the Living Levels programme focus on working with farmers and partners to re- establish the management of the inter-field drainage ditches, known locally as ‘reens’, as part of a sustainable farming system, which also protects water quality, soil health, and helps to maintain the integrity of designated sites (SSSIs). The SMS project will also provide demonstration sites to inform the wider farming community, as well as policy and decision makers, of the benefits and challenges of implementing a sustainable land management system. At the same time, it will work to ensure local communities have improved knowledge of the various benefits that sustainable farming can provide.
Environment Systems, working with the University of Gloucester and the Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI), has been commissioned to design and implement a programme of monitoring for the SMS. This involves creating a baseline for established habitats and connectivity through ground surveys and imagery from Sentinel satellites. The data will also be used to model any habitat and ecosystem changes over time using our own SENCE tools and methodology.
We will also ensure that the SMS for the Gwent Levels aligns with national monitoring programmes to provide key data and evidence underpinning Welsh environmental legislation and SoNaRR, which assesses the extent to which natural resources in Wales are being sustainably managed. Robust evidence from the monitoring programme will help to illustrate the benefits of ecosystem services and sustainable habitat management. It will also help identify opportunities for the creation of new habitats, nature conservation and mitigation against flooding and risks to pollination. Particular attention will be paid to the monitoring of protected priority species that thrive in the Gwent Levels specifically Lapwing and the Shrill Carder Bee.
We have a number of new staff here in Aberystwyth.
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Environment Systems Data Services 2.0
A year in the making, we launched the latest version of our Data Services platform with no particular fanfare in May. The changes we have made are mostly concerned with infrastructure and the application of data science and data engineering, so there are no obvious changes from a user perspective and hence no fanfare.
Despite this, the changes we have made are indeed significant, increasing amongst other things, the size of the archive that we are able to hold. Currently, this amounts to over 50 TB of Sentinel-1 (from May 2018) and Sentinel-2 (from November 2017) data. The improvements also enable us to deliver data at scale, what does that mean? It means we can now cater for much larger additional areas over longer periods of time in a more cost-effective way. To reflect this we have been able to lower our monthly price to £200 for 1 month of access.
By optimising/removing the Herculean task of data handling and data management we have made huge strides towards focusing on the value part of the data proposition, analysis. Very soon we will be able to offer commercial off-the-shelf data products (COTS) too. As well as improving efficiency, we have not only lowered the cost of archiving but also lowered the risks involved in handling terabytes of data. Country wide project analysis anyone?
Today climate change is rising up the political agenda. It has been on our radar for a number of years. Wherever we work, whether it is here in the UK, in Uganda, in Africa or in the Caribbean and Latin America we can clearly see its impacts. Understanding its effects and mitigating the risks it introduces is now very much part of our work.
Here in the UK some of the predicted changes in the climate are already happening, for instance the increase in the intensity and frequency of storms. It was also recently announced that ten of the hottest years recorded have occurred since 2002. Overall temperatures are set to rise, with the summer temperature set to rise more than the winter temperature over most of Wales. Rainfall might increase in winter and spring and decrease in summer, leading to a seasonal effect of longer wetter springs and increased risk of flooding and drier summers. Long dry spells during the summer might mean that the grass in pastures stops growing as it did last year which puts pressure on livestock farming. The changes in seasonality impacts the growing season for all crop varieties.
In the Caribbean, where water is a precious commodity, some of the low lying limestone islands have aquifers where the layers of fresh water are held floating above the sea water. In such cases, the aquifers are already becoming increasingly brackish. Where such water is used to irrigate crops, the top soil chemistry is changing. Water recovery from any rain that falls is vital and already well established. On the volcanic islands, soil erosion and flooding can be a big issue; particularly with the increasing intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes, which have already devastated many of the island territories.
In Uganda, we are already seeing changes in rainfall patterns and total annual rainfall. The climate of Uganda may become wetter on average and the increase in rainfall may be unevenly distributed and occur as more extreme or more frequent periods of intense rainfall. Changes in temperature are likely to have significant implications for water resources, food security, natural resource management, human health, settlements and infrastructure. The frequency or severity of extreme climate events, such as heat waves, droughts, floods and storms is expected to increase.
Key to our work is a continual scan of the most up-to-date climate change research across the world. Understanding and a strong evidence base underpins everything we do. We monitor habitats and crops, undertake vulnerability work to help people mitigate against the risks and prepare for extreme events. We identify spatial opportunities such as tree planting in river catchments to slow water flows during heavy rainfall to mitigate against flooding. In short we provide both the evidence and insight to help people, farmers, government agencies, water companies and many other organisations face up to the challenges imposed by our changing climate.