News Projects

What’s next?

What’s next?

Now that the Soil Fungal Communities project has concluded, find out what is in store for our Soil Squad next.

What’s next for the Soil Squad?

Following on from the success of this project, BOFIN is leading a brand-new three-year project that starts in January 2024. Thriving Roots Underpinning Total soil Health (TRUTH) aims to set up a new farmer-led platform to quantify and evaluate soil/root interactions and validate a novel sensor that can ‘smell’ a soil’s biological signature.

TRUTH addresses the current lack of reliable tools available to farmers to monitor, quantify, and improve either soil health or root development. This makes it challenging to understand how interventions may affect crop yield and quality.

There are two key outcomes the project will be aiming to deliver:

A soil health sensor which provides in-field measurement of microbial diversity and fungal:bacterial ratio.

A platform comprising on-farm soil/root health testing tools and a knowledge exchange community farmers can use to inform sustainable soil management (SSM) practices and test productivity improvements of novel genetics and bioproducts.

It will be the Soil Squad who will deliver the platform. BOFIN will be looking to work with up to 30 Root Rangers to develop it over the course of the project, with the help of the other project partners. The Soil Circle will be the community we establish, involving scientists, project partners and others with an interest or experience in soils. This will be the forum through which to trade knowledge and experience on SSM, and specifically the tools we will be developing within the project. It will be hosted in the Knowledge in Farming section of The Farming Forum.

The TRUTH project partners

The British On-Farm Innovation Network (BOFIN)

Leading on farmer engagement, development of Soil Circle, on-farm trials, including Agronomic analysis of trial data through ADAS (contractor) and dissemination. Also breeder advice and steer through KWS UK and RAGT Seeds (contractors).

PES Technologies

They have pioneered the sensor technology which will be developed further along with providing information on soil health to farmers.

Crop Health & Protection (CHAP)

Leading on project management and contributing to stakeholder engagement, as well as providing data on soil fungal communities through Crop Science Centre (contractor).

John Innes Centre

Leading the microbiome analysis, supporting farmer training and on-farm trials, seed multiplication and access to novel/unusual rooting traits.

University of Nottingham

Leading on plant-soil interactions, root/soil assessment and development of Root Ranger skills.


Soil Squad – Results

Soil Squad – Results

Assessment of Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi of UK Soils.


What is this about?

This is a project to establish the level of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) in arable soils across a range of locations, soil types and management systems.

The project, led by Dr Tom Thirkell of the Crop Science Centre (CSC), complements work undertaken at CSC into sustainable crop nutrition.

Why is AMF important?

One of the oldest symbiotic relationships in nature is the one plants have with AMF. It’s also currently thought to be the origin of the relationship legumes use to fix nitrogen from the air. Plants feed carbon to the fungi in exchange for nutrients delivered from the soil. Work at CSC is exploring the signalling pathways but very little is currently known about the level and range of AMF in UK soils.

What has the project done?

The Soil Circle is the BOFIN knowledge cluster around this project of those with specialist interest, including scientists who have opted in, share experiences and knowledge, and help shape the project. It currently has 126 members.

Within this is the Soil Squad, 77 farmer members who committed to provide root samples for analysis and gave additional information on soil type, management (organic, regenerative, conventional) and cultivation system (direct drill to plough). They were provided with packs, postage paid envelopes and a sampling protocol drawn up by BOFIN and CSC.

Farmers were asked to choose a first wheat crop, and most of the samples provided came from crops of KWS Extase or RGT Skyfall. RAGT Seeds and KWS UK have provided additional samples from their variety screens. These have all been analysed by staff at CSC.

The Results

What were the samples like?

CSC received 41 root samples from BOFIN Soil Squad members. Of the root samples provided, every single one had been correctly taken, treated and packed according to the protocol provided. What’s more every single sample was accompanied with full cropping history details. This means the Soil Squad has provided a really valuable and thorough dataset for analysis.

Results from Soil Squad members who submitted samples (n=41), shown in order of percentage root colonisation. A full description of arbuscles and vesicles is given below. 

How does AMF relate to farming practice?

Details of cultivation practice were drawn from the mycorrhizal root survey Soil Squad members completed at the time they sent in their samples. In addition, details of predominant soil type and how participants describe their farming system were drawn from their original registration submission. Generally speaking, the results show what you might expect:

Direct drilling brings the most root colonisation, followed by shallow non-inversion tillage, while there is least root colonisation in deep tillage systems.

Organic performs best (although note small sample size), followed by regenerative agriculture, while AMF is lowest in conventional farming systems.

Colonisation tended to be highest in medium soils, followed by heavier soil types with lowest levels found in light soils.

Only four of the samples came from plough-based systems, two of which were from organic farms. It is therefore difficult to draw conclusions from these samples.

How does variety choice affect AMF?

The study was supported by plant breeders RAGT Seeds and KWS UK, who also provided samples from small-plot trials near Cambridge. A range of KWS varieties, both winter and spring-sown, all grown in the same field with the same management practice were compared.

In terms of AMF colonisation, there was no difference between winter and spring-sown varieties, but for individual varieties, there was huge variation, from about 20% to almost 50%.

KWS Extase was the highest at 48.1%, Palladium, Zealum and Ladum were much lower at around 25-30%. Ladum had the highest number of arbuscles, at 14.5%, with Palladium at 6%.

The results suggest Palladium doesn’t think it needs mycorrhizas in quite the same way as Extase. The nature of the relationship is that the wheat plant decides when and to what extent it trades resources.

This would be an interesting area of further study – it might be that those varieties that have really high colonisation are allowing it because they get more benefit from that interaction. It may be that root architecture has a big impact, or there may be other, as yet unknown factors.

How do cover crops influence AMF?

These were the focus of trials at RAGT where they’re testing different cover cropping mechanisms and approaches. We sampled the site in June of a crop of Skyfall winter wheat that followed one of five cover crop mixes or fallow as the control.

Where the wheat crop followed a cover crop, the results indicate you get almost three times as much AMF colonisation than if it follows fallow. CC4 in the chart is a biofumigant mixture that didn’t perform as well as two Maxicover seed mixes (CC1 and CC3).

This supports anecdotal evidence that the longer you have living roots in the soil, the longer you have carbon being provided to the mycorrhizae and it can stay in its growing, foraging growth habit.

Where you have a fallow period with no living roots, the fungi retreat into spores and become dormant, waiting for another root to come along. In summary cover cropping is generally good for mycorrhizae.

How does AMF colonise roots?

AMF spores in the soil germinate under favourable conditions and the fungi grow hyphae, which are thin, thread-like structures. These hyphae grow through the soil and search for suitable host plant roots. The fungi and plants communicate through biochemical signals, allowing the fungi to recognize compatible host roots.

Upon finding a suitable host, the fungal hyphae penetrate the plant’s root. This penetration typically occurs either between epidermal cells or directly through an epidermal cell.

Once established, the fungi can spread within the root system and even to adjacent plants. The network of fungal hyphae can extend far into the soil, effectively increasing the root surface area and thereby the plant’s ability to access resources.

The symbiotic relationship is mutually beneficial. The plant provides the fungi with lipids (fatty acids) carbohydrates (like glucose and sucrose), which are products of photosynthesis and used by the fungi to lay down its carbon-based structure. In return, the AMF enhance the plant’s uptake of water and nutrients, particularly phosphorus, and also other minerals like nitrogen, potassium, and calcium from the soil.

AMF are carbon auxotrophs – the only way the fungi can get carbon is from the host plant. This process is regulated by the plant’s perception of its environment, and when it’s optimal to engage with the AMF. Activity is particularly significant in nutrient-poor environments where the enhanced nutrient uptake provided by AMF can be vital for plant survival.

This symbiotic relationship plays a crucial role in soil health and plant growth, influencing plant diversity and productivity in various ecosystems. What’s more, fungal carbon is very long lived in the soil – much longer than plant carbon. So AMF may also provide an effective way to sequester carbon in your soil.

What do arbuscles do?

The arbuscles (from Latin ‘small tree’) are highly branched fungal structures inside the plant root, which provide enormous surface area over which the fungi can trade mineral nutrients (mostly phosphorus and nitrogen) for plant carbon, in the form of lipids and sugars.

The number of arbuscules gives a hint to the amount of nutrient exchange that’s going on, but this is only a hint. At the time your samples were collected, the levels of nutrient trade between plant and fungus are probably near their peak. More in-depth work in controlled conditions will let us see in more detail how much nutrient trade is taking place.

What do vesicles do?

The mycorrhizal fungal vesicles in the roots are balloon-like structures that allow the fungi to store large quantities of lipids inside the root. Across all the samples we received, there are very few vesicles, and this is not hugely surprising. The flow of carbon to the fungi would still have been high at the timepoint we sampled.

Instead of storing this carbon, the fungi are using it to make arbuscules, and sending it out to the growing mycelium in the soil so that it can forage for mineral nutrients.

In later growth stages, the carbon delivery to the roots will slow and eventually stop altogether. Shortly after flowering, the fungus will switch from arbuscule production to vesicle production. Rather than building or maintaining mycelium out in the soil, the fungus will store carbon in the vesicles.

This allows it to ‘over-winter’ while it has no carbon supply, and wait for another growing root to be close enough that it can colonise. If samples were collected at dough development/senescence, we would expect to see far more vesicles and fewer arbuscules.

News Projects

Farmers to train robots to spot slugs

Farmers are being called on to help train robots to spot slugs and the damage they cause to arable crops.

The ground-breaking trial, set to start in the spring, will equip the ‘Slug Sleuths’ with special rigs designed to improve the complex machine-learning algorithms used to identify the slimy pests.

Farmers interested in taking part are invited to join a webinar on 10 January at 8:30am.

The trial is part of SLIMERS, a £2.6M Defra-funded project to develop new management strategies to help farmers achieve more sustainable slug control in arable crops.

The new work will run in-parallel with another component of the project which analyses the distribution of slugs in arable fields. This information will help the team to develop more sustainable approaches to the use of pellets by targeting only the patches where the pest gathers.

Farmers are already successfully delivering the field experiments for this investigation and the SLIMERS project is now seeking similar support to investigate slug control using the application of biological agents (nematodes) with an autonomous robot.

“We developed the concept of autonomous slug control through the SlugBot project, funded by Innovate UK,” explains Technical Lead for SLIMERS Dr Jenna Ross, OBE, of Agri-Tech Centre CHAP.

Farmers will use special rigs to help train the robot AI

“This work enabled robots to identify slugs and then spot-treat them with advanced alternative biological control methods.

“These new trials will put that proof of concept to the test in real field situations. But we need farmers to use their skill and judgement to train the robot AI.”

Special rigs, equipped with the latest camera technology, have been designed and are currently being built by SLIMERS project partner The Small Robot Co (SRC).

Farmers will use these to mimic a robot moving through the field and direct the rig to the patches where slugs gather to devour the crop.

Thousands of multi-spectral images of slug infestation will be gathered and fed into the machine-learning algorithms that will soon be used to find slugs and treat them without any human intervention, notes Ray King, Lead Mechanical Engineer at SRC.

“Robots learn as they go. The more images we gather, the better they will be at identifying this important pest.”

At the webinar on 10 January, Ray will give an insight into the world-leading technology SRC has developed to identify pests and pathogens in arable fields, and explain how the trial will work.

Dr Kerry McDonald-Howard who has recently joined CHAP, will share some of her expertise on Phasmarhabditis species – parasitic nematodes that feeds on slugs.

“It’s a highly effective natural predator you can spot spray at a low cost to an area where a slug is found,” she notes.

Ray King

The farmer ‘Slug Sleuths’ recruited to use the rigs to train the AI will be paid to carry out the work and gather the data by the British On-Farm Innovation Network (BOFIN).

“Farmers who know their fields know where slugs gather and where the damage is greatest,” notes BOFIN Founder and Managing Director Tom Allen-Stevens.

“The work on patch treatment of slugs previously funded at Harper Adams University by AHDB and now being developed under SLIMERS has refined this by proving that other slug patches also occur in all fields.

“Targeting all these areas with slug pellets results in commercially viable and environmentally sustainable control. In practice these patches also offer the target areas for the robot to operate in, reducing the area they need to search.

“At the webinar we’ll explain how farmers will be paid to help transfer this knowledge to the robot AI.”

Farmers encouraged to come forward would be those planning to establish a spring cereal in a slug-infested field with a keen understanding of the pest and a determination to harness new technology to control them.

To sign up to the free webinar go to You can also be involved in SLIMERS by joining the 160+ volunteer Slug Scouts.

These farmers and gardeners have been sending in slugs to the CHAP laboratory at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire to help further train the AI’s slug recognition and identify crop damage caused by the slimy pest.


The NCS Project

– November Update –

We are so impressed by how many sign-ups PulsePEP has already had as we get closer and closer to our goal of 200 farmers! If you are interested in the NCS Project and would like to stay updated or get involved click on the button below!

Dates for the diary:

29th November 2023 – We will be hosting the official launch of PulsePEP on day 1 of CropTec. The event will start at 11:30am and you will be able to find us in The Oak Tree building within the Warwick Complex. We want to see as many of you come along as possible. Make sure to let us know if you are planning on attending!


The NCS Project Newsletter

Partner Updates

Here you can find content shared by some of the NCS Project partners. This content includes podcasts, farmer stories, new data and a deeper look into the science.

At the 4th International Legume Society Meeting in Granada September 19th to 22nd, JHI shared a poster detailing long-term legume-based cropped systems for Ecological Intensification. Click here to see the full poster.

Through this, JHI were invited to talk on Good Morning Scotland – you can listen to this piece with Pete Iannetta here.

Trials conducted back in 2015 and 2016 explored a range of opportunities for boosting the protein content of the wholecrop cereal silage the Flemings have always grown to provide extra winter fodder and a productive crop under which to establish new grass leys. Of the six mixtures trialled in the first year, spring barley and peas proved the most productive, yielding 7.4 tonnes DM/ha at 13% protein for a cost of 17p/kg of protein. In 2016, spring barley and yellow lupins took top spot with 9.2 t DM/ha at 12% protein for a cost of 15p/kg.

Read the full case study here.

With the roasting and dehulling trials commencing in mid – October. The beans harvested last month were collected from G Mellor & Partners and are being stored whilst preparations continue at the trail site. The JK Machinery and Mecmar processing equipment is ready for installation and the trail is due to be completed in early November.

Norfolk arable farmer, Charlie Davison, has rented parts of his 620-acre farm to carrot growers for many years. The crop provides a useful break from the winter wheat he grows for milling and seed on Game Farm in West Bilney, near Kings Lynn.

Read the full article here.


Join the quest for weed seed solutions

Farmers with tricky grassweeds to control are invited to take part in an exciting new farmer-led project as part of the second year of BOFIN trials on harvest weed seed control (HWSC).

The call is out for Seed Scouts – farmers who will monitor and sample grassweeds in their crop as harvest approaches and send these in to NIAB for analysis. Those interested should contact OR

Every farmer who takes part in the study will get tailored information on the likely level of efficacy of HWSC, which opens up a new chemical-free form of grassweed control and helps reduce dependence on glyphosate. The Seed Scouts will also be taking part in the UK’s first ever farmer-led survey of grassweeds left standing at harvest. Experience in other countries has shown this is a valuable window to tackle tricky grassweeds, such as ryegrass and meadow brome.

Also revealed during the webinar will be plans for further on-farm trials of the Redekop Seed Control Unit (SCU) that will take place on three UK farms this harvest, building on last year’s results.

Anyone with an interest in the technology can register to attend the webinar and will join the BOFIN Seed Circle tracking progress and helping to shape the project. Farmers in particular are encouraged to sign up as Seed Scouts and take part in this important weed survey

Will Smith, research agronomist at NIAB will talk through how to sample crops, the help provided to Seed Scouts and how the trials will be run with the SCU.

Adam Driver of Driver Farms, Suffolk, leads the project and has an SCU fitted to his Claas Lexion 8800. He’ll share experiences from last harvest and discuss what he’s looking to gain from this year’s trial.

Trevor Thiessen, co-owner and president at Redekop Manufacturing will join the discussion from Canada, offering further insight into the SCU and bring us up to date on latest developments.

On the 18 May 2023 a webinar took place discussing the Harvest Weed-Seed Control project. The panel addressed questions and discussed suggestions live from webinar attendees. The focus of this webinar was to bring in prospective Seed Scouts to refine how the sampling will work.

If this webinar seems like something you feel you missed out on, please contact OR to request a recording of the webinar!

Year one results

While this year’s trial is funded by the Defra Farming Innovation Programme, delivered by Innovate UK, it carries on from a farmer-led study, funded by Redekop into HWSC.

Last year, three UK farmers took part in the trial, coordinated by BOFIN, during which Will drew up protocols for sampling and analysing the weeds left standing at harvest, building on NIAB expertise in this area.

“The only way HWSC will work is if the seeds are available to the machinery at harvest,” notes Will. “We currently know little about how much viable seed goes into the combine – there’s very limited work on this in the UK and Europe.”

In 2022, three Redekop SCUs were imported and fitted to the farmers’ combines prior to harvest, with the help of Oria Agriculture. Jake Freestone of Overbury Enterprises in Worcestershire has one on his John Deere S790i combine and has a bit of a problem with meadow brome.

Italian ryegrass is grassweed enemy number one for Warwickshire grower and Velcourt farm manager Ted Holmes, who been trialling a unit fitted to his New Holland CR9.90.

And in Suffolk, Adam has noticed a build-up of blackgrass in the chaff lines behind his Claas Lexion 8800, running on a no-till 12/36m controlled-traffic farming system. He’s also hoping the SCU keeps meadow brome in check.

Two fields on Ted’s farm were closely monitored, in winter and spring barley, and both had a high Italian ryegrass population. “There are two critical monitoring periods,” explains Will. “Firstly, we want to know the population of viable seed standing at harvest, which involves taking representative samples just before the combine goes through. “Then we monitor what emerges into the following crop once autumn cultivations and drilling are complete.”

Will’s now developed a protocol for farmers to take their own pre-harvest sample. “It’s impractical to have to wait for a weed scientist before you get the combine out. But just a little instruction on how to sample helped the farmers take good, representative samples. They sent these into NIAB for assessment.

“For Italian ryegrass the figures were 62% in Warwickshire in winter barley and 87% for spring barley. These figures are high, but testing of the seed found that a lot of the IRG seed in the spring barley was unviable, and we think that was due to the hot, dry conditions.”

Effect of the Redekop SCU in winter and spring barley:

The surprise result in the 2022 sampling was blackgrass in a field of winter wheat Adam monitored in Suffolk. “We found 54% of this was retained at harvest, so there’s more available to the SCU than we had thought. But we should consider the hot and dry conditions of the 2022 harvest,” notes Will.

Source: NIAB, 2022, Warwickshire. IRG seed shed into winter barley (left) and spring barley (right), with emerged seedlings counted on 26 October in oilseed rape and winter beans respectively. Note: the spring barley field was subsoiled, which may have introduced more seed from previous years. Figures shown are averages across two strips in each field, with multiple transects taken in each strip.

Following crop

Will returned to the farms in late October to make a full assessment of emerged grassweeds. “In the field following winter barley in Warwickshire there was a 60% reduction from the SCU. In spring barley, the result was lower – a 44% reduction – but then a lot of the seed was unviable, so we’d expect a lower result.”The eventual aim of the study is to gather data across a range of crops and key grassweeds of the amount of viable seed standing at harvest. “What we’ve achieved this year is a useful snapshot, but we’ll need a lot more growers to take part to build a really valuable dataset,” notes Will.

And that’s the plan for harvest this year. It revolves around the Seed Circle – 140 farmers, scientists and others who have registered interest in the trial and are kept actively involved.

“Feedback from the group has indicated they’re keen to do their own on-farm trials, so we’ve developed the protocol into a simple procedure any farmer can apply just before harvesting their crop. The Seed Scouts who sign up will receive a full sampling pack with instructions that will give them an accurate picture of how much seed has been shed to help them plan subsequent control.”The value of sampling has wider implications, he adds. “It’ll build into a rich dataset, across crops, locations and grassweeds, on the efficacy of HWSC. This is data we simply don’t have at present in UK conditions.

“The more farmers who get involved, the more we’ll understand about the efficacy of HWSC and its potential to open a new, completely chemical-free window on keeping the trickiest of grassweeds under control,” concludes Will.


New farmer-led group champions insecticide-free wheat

Wheat growers who want to leave behind the use of insecticides on their crop are invited to join a new farmer-led group that will develop the tools and the knowledge so they can do so with confidence, and benefit from new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) payments.

Anyone with a resolve to support the abundance of beneficial insects in arable crops can join the Genserus Circle that will come together at a webinar on Thursday 20 April at 8:30am, hosted by the British On-Farm Innovation Network (BOFIN).

The initiative brings into perspective new genetics that offer protection to wheat crops from the day they’re planted to the date of harvest. It highlights practices that both build a thriving biodiversity and support productivity in the field.

Avoiding the cost of BYDV is for many farmers the only reason they still use insecticide on wheat.

The Genserus BYDV-resistant trait removes the need to apply insecticides to wheat early in the season, which for many farmers is the only time insecticide is used on the crop.

Coupled with other Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques proven to boost beneficial insects, this allows growers to go insecticide-free without risking losses from pest damage, and to benefit from the new £45/ha incentive available through Defra’s SFI.

“Growers who want take advantage of this payment can de-risk themselves by growing a Genserus variety,” says Lee Bennett of RAGT Seeds who have brought the BYDV-resistant trait to market.

Lee Bennett

At the webinar on Thursday 20 April, Lee will give an insight into the genetics and the UK field trials that have scoped their performance.

“We’ve also been investigating the use of companion crops, examining their effect on the performance of a range of RAGT winter wheat varieties,” he says.

“This will help growers looking to benefit from the additional £55/ha payment included in the new IPM standard of SFI.”

Martin Lines

Joining Lee on the panel for the webinar is Martin Lines, UK Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, who will highlight ways in which enhancing habitats to boost beneficial insects can bring business, as well as environmental benefits.

Neil Potts

Neil Potts, an independent agronomist in the south west of England, offers a practical perspective on insecticide-free wheat. And Norfolk grower Kit Papworth who’s grown BYDV-resistant RGT Wolverine, relays where he is on the journey to going insecticide-free.

Webinar attendees will get the opportunity to suggest activities and initiatives that will make the most of the move to insecticide-free wheat. “We’re keen to support on-farm trials that will help inform how the genetics are best utilised, for example,” says Lee.

Kit Papworth

“The ultimate aim is for the Genserus Circle of growers to be at the forefront of a farming system that’s in harmony with nature as well as profitable and rewarding for all involved.”

The Genserus Circle is a BOFIN initiative supported by RAGT Seeds. AHDB Recommended List Group 4 candidate RGT Grouse combines the Genserus BYDV-resistant trait with resistance to orange wheat blossom midge.

To register for the webinar on Thursday 20 April at 8:30am and join the Genserus Circle, click the button below.


Farmers prove the science of on-farm trials

First year results of ground-breaking trials undertaken to test a landrace wheat believed to be resistant to slugs could have far-reaching implications for how new technologies are tested in the field. Tom Allen-Stevens rounds up the findings to date, highlights how to get involved and offers an insight on what’s yet to come.

Ten UK farmers have successfully delivered an on-farm trial to explore the properties of a wheat believed to be resistant to slugs. But record low slug populations last autumn have meant results from the scientific trial – the first of its type to be conducted by UK farmers – are inconclusive.

The trial is part of a study, co-ordinated by BOFIN (British On-Farm Innovation Network), to help farmers move away from a reliance on chemical control measures and the potential environmental impact of those chemicals.

The ten “Slug Sleuths” – farmer members of the network – were contracted to establish a trial plot of Watkins 788, a landrace wheat variety never grown before on commercial farms in the UK. This was compared with their farm standard wheat variety and the farmers monitored the plots closely for slug activity.

The Slug Sleuths gather to discuss results of the ground-breaking trial.

The farms involved are spread across England, from Cambridgeshire to Devon, Oxfordshire to North Yorkshire. The Sleuths followed a protocol developed by BOFIN with Keith Walters, Professor of invertebrate and pest management at Harper Adams University, who also analysed the results. “The farmers did a first-rate job,” he comments.

“The detail of the trial requirements was delivered almost flawlessly. This gave us an excellent set of data up to the publishable standard you’d expect from professional trials technicians.”

Field trials are an essential element when testing new techniques and technologies, he points out, so the fact that farmers can set up and deliver valid results is significant.

“The implications are huge – If we can get scientifically sound results from a range of sites without sending research assistants all over the UK, that offers significant savings for field research.”

Keith Walters

However, the hot summer and dry autumn conditions confounded conclusions that could be drawn. Very few slugs appeared at establishment or soon after, when crops are at their most vulnerable to damage, and none of the wheat across the plots suffered significant damage.

“I’ve never known a year like it – it was good news for farmers, but sadly we are no closer to knowing whether this wheat does have a slug-resistant trait,” he concludes.

Ecological improvement

The first year of the Slug-Resistant Wheat project, which started in April 2022 and is led by BOFIN, is supported through a contribution by the Environment Agency as part of its Environment Programme. This supports partner-led projects in a Catchment Based Approach to improve the chemical and ecological quality of waterbodies.

Each of the Slug Sleuths drilled the trial within a first wheat crop, following oilseed rape, in a part of a field they knew was problematic for slugs. Four 20x20m plots were established – two of Watkins 788 while the other two were the farm-standard wheat variety. Two slug refuge traps were placed in each plot and monitored by the farmers twice a week.

“Previous research has shown this to be the right size of plot and distribution of traps to adequately monitor slug feeding behaviour. Ideally we would have liked more replication at each site, but the intention of the trial was as much about whether farmer-led trials would yield appropriate data, as the impact of the wheat lines on slug damage,” notes Keith.

A previous field trial had shown a significant difference in slug damage to the Watkins 788, but the plot was too small, due to limited availability of seed. It’s still unknown whether the landrace variety truly resisted slugs, or whether they simply moved next door to a plot of more palatable wheat.

“This time the plots were the right size, and we had ten separate trials, rather than just the one, to put the wheat to the test. But there simply weren’t enough slugs at any of the sites,” he reports.

Four 20x20m plots were established – two of Watkins 788 while the other two were the farm-standard wheat variety.

“Years of studies with refuge traps have shown you need at least 1.2 slugs on average per trap to reach a valid conclusion about any difference between treatments. The most we had in this trial was 1.07/trap, the next highest was 0.46/trap, and one of the sleuths recorded no slugs at all in traps.”

Plenty of beetles were found in the plots, however, which has spurred the sleuths on to find out more about their value as slug predators and how to encourage them in the field. Valuable lessons were also learned about monitoring methodology.

“The sleuths were asked to photograph the wheat at each visit and also provide a crop condition score based on their own farming experience” explains Keith. “But this is a subjective measurement and scores differed between sites for what was essentially a crop of the same condition. The photos, however, built into a very valuable record of crop growth at emergence. The question now is whether these are best assessed by the human eye or by a computer algorithm to detect differences.”

The monitoring also showed Watkins 788 generally emerged later and slower than the farm-standard variety. The very latest observations from the plots this spring show that the landrace variety has caught up with its modern counterpart, and on some farms sped through to stem extension earlier.

“The influence of early crop growth on its ability to withstand damage is something we should look at in year two,” notes Keith. “We’re also keen to scale up at each site with more replication, and will work with the sleuths to ensure we keep the trial design easy enough to implement.”

Genetic technologies

It was how the Watkins line behaved in lab-based feeding trials that initially sparked interest in the genetics, explains Dr Simon Griffiths at John Innes Centre, who leads the BBSRC-funded Developing Sustainable Wheats (DSW) programme.

“The Watkins Collection comprises 827 landrace varieties brought together in the 1920s and ‘30s before systematic plant breeding began. We’ve used genetic and genomic technologies to reduce these down to 120 representing the genotypic diversity of the original collection.

Simon Griffiths

“This is a far greater pool of wheat genetics than is currently available in elite lines, offering breeders traits that simply don’t exist in modern wheats,” he says.

These 120 wheats were screened through feeding trials at the JIC Insectary in 2015, as part of the Defra-funded Wheat Genetic Improvement Network (WGIN). Slugs were given a choice and their behaviour studied. Watkins 788 was a line consistently spurned.

“We firstly need to confirm this finding and the results of the 2016 small-plot trial (below), which is the purpose of the current field trials,” explains Simon. “We also want to understand what genes are contributing to that resistance.”

One of the aims of the current field trials is to confirm the results of previous small-plot trials showing Watkins 788 was consistently spurned. Source: John Innes Centre, 2016. Small plot trial at Morley Farms, Wymondham, Norfolk.

The DSW team of wheat genetics specialists aim to home in on Quantitative Trait Loci (QTL) – chromosomal regions believed to be responsible for a trait. They’ve taken Watkins 788 and developed 77 recombinant inbred lines (RILs) by crossing it with Paragon, a relatively modern spring wheat used frequently in research.

“The whole genome of Watkins 788 has been broken up and spread out over these 77 lines, so we can study them in detail and hopefully identify the QTL. Then we can pass the genetic markers for slug resistance to breeders, along with germplasm they can incorporate into their lines,” he continues.

Further feeding trials

First the RILs have to be studied through the same feeding trials that identified the initial discovery, to find out which have taken on the phenotype. This is the expression of slug resistance that be characterised by molecular markers. Those trials have just got underway, as part of the farmer-led project, conducted by Dr Victor Soria-Carrasco and the Entomology and Insectary Platform team at John Innes Centre.

“The aim is to identify several resistant lines we can multiply up for further in-field trials conducted by farmers,” says Victor. “But we’re not just testing the RILs. The farmers and others involved in the project have requested we test other wheat varieties and specific properties.”

Around the core group of Slug Sleuths is the BOFIN Slug Circle – over 100 growers, scientists and others kept informed of project progress through webinars and updates. They help direct and shape the trial and have highlighted key priorities for Victor and the team to test in the lab. While the RILs will be multiplied up for future trials, the Slug Circle have prioritised for properties that will be tested in the field this autumn:

Victor Soria-Carrasco
  1. Run the initial test again to establish with certainty that Watkins 788 is disliked by slugs.
  2. Test seed versus young shoots to determine exactly what it is that slugs like to eat and what they dislike about the landrace line.
  3. Test a KWS Santiago x Graham line bred by John Blackman that may have a similar property – four of the Slug Sleuths have tested the line in the field trials alongside the Watkins 788.
  4. Test against popular and upcoming commercial lines the Sleuths will be growing this autumn – KWS Dawsum, KWS Extase, Gleam, Graham and RGT Grouse.
  5. Assess the effect of seed dressings.

The trials will take place over the spring and early summer while slugs are active, but Victor highlights that a shortage of the slimy pests could again prove to be a problem. “We need well over 1000 slugs to run these trials, so we’re appealing to farmers and others interested in getting involved to send in slugs.”

BOFIN is calling for Slug Scouts, who will capture grey field slugs and send them in to the lab by post.

BOFIN is calling for Slug Scouts, who will capture grey field slugs and send them in to the lab by post. Those who volunteer are provided with a pack that includes containers and postage-paid envelopes, as well as instructions on how to set up an effective ‘Slimery’. “This is what you use to attract and trap your slug population that you can then harvest periodically – it’ll want to be in the most slug-infested spot of your farm,” explains Victor.

Funding has been secured for a second year of the ground-breaking trial series and BOFIN is encouraging farmers, scientists and others interested in slugs to join the Slug Circle. From this, farmers will get the opportunity to become Slug Sleuths and be paid to take part in on-farm trials. BOFIN is also leading a major public-funded slug-management project, getting underway later this year, that will bring cutting-edge new technologies into commercial use.

Discussion and resources around the project can be found at the Slug Resistant Wheat project, hosted on the Trinity Pioneers platform.


Results revealed of farmer-led slug trial

Farmers have successfully delivered an on-farm trial to explore the properties of a wheat believed to be resistant to slugs. The first trial of its type to be conducted by UK farmers, results will be revealed at a webinar on Thursday 16 March at 8:30am.

The trial is part of a study, co-ordinated by BOFIN (British On-Farm Innovation Network), to help farmers move away from a reliance on chemical control measures and the potential environmental impact of those chemicals.

Ten “Slug Sleuths” – farmer members of the network – were contracted to establish a trial plot of Watkins 788, a Landrace wheat variety never grown before on commercial farms in the UK.

The trial compared Watkins 788 (left) with the farm standard wheat.

This was compared with their farm standard wheat variety and the farmers monitored the plots closely for slug activity.

The ten farmers followed a protocol developed by BOFIN with Keith Walters, Professor of invertebrate and pest management at Harper Adams University.

“The way the trials were established and data captured was a huge success,” comments Keith, who also analysed the results.

“This shows that farmers can set up and deliver valid results of field trials from a scientific study. These on-farm trials are an essential element when testing new techniques and technologies.

Keith Walters

“The implications are huge – If we can get scientifically sound results from a range of sites without sending research assistants all over the UK, that offers significant savings for field research.”

Keith will deliver the first-year results of this ground-breaking trial at the webinar on Thursday 16 March.

Anyone can attend and join the Slug Circle, a group of farmers and scientists who are helping to shape how the project develops.

Simon Griffiths

Also presenting at the webinar will be Dr Simon Griffiths, Group Leader of Designing Future Wheats at the John Innes Centre, who will bring attendees up to date on the genetics of Watkins 788 and the quest for a slug-resistant trait.

He will also highlight lab-based feeding trials, currently underway to explore further this wheat’s fascinating properties, along with other wheats undergoing tests.

The Slug Sleuths will then come together to discuss the trial and its implications for improving crop returns and reducing reliance on chemical control.

Slug Sleuth Jamie Melrose inspects a trap.

Chaired by BOFIN Founder and Oxfordshire farmer Tom Allen-Stevens, webinar attendees will be invited in to give their views and ask questions directly to the panel.

“We started this quest for a slug-resistant trait over three years ago, and it would never have got underway had it not been for the enthusiasm of the farmers who got involved,” notes Tom.

“We’ve not only proven the case for farmer-led research and directed cutting-edge R&D towards a much-needed in-field use, we’ve shown farmers can do the fieldwork to prove the concept.

“It means farmers can play their rightful role in delivering the Fourth Agricultural Revolution and accelerate adoption of some of the jaw-dropping genetic innovations currently being developed in labs and glasshouses across the UK.

“It will also help Defra direct some of the £168M of funding recently announced to encourage the take up of new technologies and advance productivity for UK farmers.”

The first year of the Slug-Resistant Wheat project, which started in April 2022 and is led by BOFIN, is supported through a contribution by the Environment Agency as part of its Environment Programme.

This supports partner-led projects as part of a Catchment Based Approach to improve the chemical and ecological quality of waterbodies.

Anyone can join the project for free and get involved in the Slug Circle – a group of around 60 farmers and scientists who have come together to explore alternative forms of slug control and who have helped shape the project as it progresses.

Driven and steered by the farmers themselves, at the centre of the project are the 10 Slug Sleuths, who carry out the on-farm trials with genetics expertise provided by Simon, and seed multiplied up by JIC at its Dorothea de Winton Field Station, Norwich.

The feeding trials are the final, new element of the project and involve “Slug Scouts”, volunteers who are gathering slugs from the field and then sending them in for the lab-based feeding studies. These are conducted by Dr Victor Soria-Carrasco and the Entomology and Insectary Platform team at the John Innes Centre.


Send in your slugs

The BOFIN ‘Slug-Resistant’ Wheat project is seeking ‘Slug Scouts’ to trap and send in slugs for feeding studies.

Farmers across the UK are being encouraged to capture grey field slugs and send them in to John Innes Centre in Norwich for a ground-breaking scientific study taking place early this spring.

The scientists are hoping farmers will harvest around 1000 slugs from their fields. These will be used for feeding trials just getting underway at the John Innes Centre Insectary.

The project, led by the British On-Farm Innovation Network (BOFIN), aims to gauge how palatable a range of different wheats are to slugs, and help farmers move away from a reliance on chemical control measures and the potential environmental impact of those chemicals.

It follows initial studies that indicated one landrace wheat, known as Watkins 788, may be resistant to the slimy pests, that cost UK arable farmers £100M every year.

“Slugs are UK arable farming’s most damaging pest,” notes Oxfordshire farmer and BOFIN founder Tom Allen-Stevens, who co-ordinates farmer involvement in the project. “As they get active again this month, rather than let them graze on our crops, we’re keen for farmers to join our group of ‘Slug Scouts’, who will trap the pests and send them in for this important study.”

The Slug Scout volunteers will be provided with a pack, including containers and postage-paid envelopes, as well as instructions on how to set up an effective ‘Slimery’.

“This is what you use to attract and trap your slug population that you can then harvest periodically – it’ll want to be in the most slug-infested spot of your farm,” explains Tom.

The trials are part of a wider project that aims to explore the palatability of wheat and the grazing behaviour of slugs, with the aim of identifying a possible slug-resistant trait for the development of future varieties.