Enhancing the Biodiversity of Ditches in Intensively Managed UK Farmland.
Shaw RF., Johnson PJ., Macdonald DW., Feber RE.
Drainage ditches, either seasonally flooded or permanent, are commonly found on intensively managed lowland farmland in the UK. They are potentially important for wetland biodiversity but, despite their ubiquity, information on their biodiversity and management in the wider countryside is scarce. We surveyed 175 ditches for their physical and chemical characteristics, spatial connectivity, plant communities and aquatic invertebrates in an area of intensively managed farmland in Oxfordshire, UK and collected information on ditch management from farmer interviews. Water depth and shade had a small impact on the diversity of plant and invertebrate communities in ditches. Increased shade over the ditch channel resulted in reduced taxonomic richness of both channel vegetation and aquatic invertebrates and channel vegetation cover was lower at shaded sites. Invertebrate taxonomic richness was higher when water was deeper. Spatial connectivity had no detectable impact on the aquatic invertebrate or plant communities found in ditches. The number of families within the orders Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera and Trichoptera (EPT), which contain many pollution-sensitive species, declined with decreasing pH of ditch water. As time since dredging increased, the number of EPT families increased in permanent ditches but decreased in temporary ditches. Whether or not a ditch was in an agri-environment scheme had little impact on the reported management regime or biodiversity value of the ditch. Measures for increasing the amount of water in ditches, by increasing the water depth or promoting retention of water in ditches, could increase the biodiversity value of ditches in agricultural land. Some temporary ditches for specialised species should be retained. Reducing the amount of shade over narrow ditches by managing adjacent hedgerows is also likely to increase the species diversity of plant and invertebrate communities within the ditch. We recommend that to preserve or enhance the biodiversity value of ditches, and improve their ecosystem service delivery, management prescriptions for hedgerows adjacent to ditches should differ from those aimed at hedgerows only.