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A guided walk through the oldest agricultural research institution in the world: Our Planet Our Future visits Rothamsted Research

Our Planet Our Future is a series of regular talks and events about sustainability, organised by Sustainable St Albans and free to attend. This summary of a guided walk around Rothamsted Research recalls the sunshine and learnings from an hour’s guided walk around the longest running agricultural experiment in the world. If you have suggestions for guided walks in Harpenden or other topics that you would like us to cover in our discussion events at The Plough and Harrow, please do get in touch.

In July 2022 the attendees of Our Planet Our Future were treated to a rarely accessed, guided walk around the Rothamsted Estate in spectacular evening sun. James Clarke, Head of Communication and Public Engagement at Rothamsted Research gave a fascinating explanation of several of the different experiments that have been running at the centre for many years.


Farming for the future

We enjoyed a very pleasant stroll for an hour or so with privileged access and explanation of how important these experiments are, showing what data from the past can tell us, giving us the tools to tackle our future climate crisis, before retiring for quick refreshments at Bennet’s.

All creatures huge and small

We started at the Rothamsted cafe where James gave an introduction and some history, then walked up to the National Insect Survey where airborne insects are sampled in giant vacuums. The insect survey has been continuously running for over 50 years giving plenty of work for the lucky souls who count the number of bugs collected – a nationally important measure for farmers of aphid and moth populations amongst other species.

We were then shown the Field Scanalyzer, the most photographed field trial ever recorded on Earth by their huge, imperceptibly-moving overhead camera rig which takes multiple high-resolution pictures of different types of wheat and grain to analyse the appearance of how they are growing, monitoring the expression of the genes of that species (Phenotype analysis).

We walked up to the top fields where we learned about the UK National Willow Library Collection containing over 100 different species of willow from which new research is providing information about carbon capture and storage – vital to our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as soil improving properties and even a potential cancer treatment. Willow is a very fast-growing species that can rapidly draw down carbon from the atmosphere in just a few years before cutting back and re-growing. Definitely more than just cricket bats!!

The tour continued at the open grasslands observing the effects of fertiliser where scientists can compare land treated with fertiliser and not, concluding at the Broadbalk fields where the world’s longest running agricultural experiments have been ongoing since 1843. Here we were shown the chequerboard of parcels of land within a field treated with different types and quantities of inputs compared to untreated control patches for reference.

Get involved

We definitely recommend a visit to those who have yet to visit: you can keep an eye on their website for their many public engagement activities available all year round.

This event was one of our regular series of Our Planet Our Future discussion events held in Harpenden which includes walks, film screenings, discussions and lively debates. We are launching a Our Planet Our Future Book Club too! Find out more and book your free ticket here.  

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