Faculty of Biological Sciences

Prof Les Firbank

Bsc(Hons) Imperial College, PhD University of East Anglia. FSB, ARCS
Professor of Sustainable Agriculture
School of Biology

Background: My first degree was in zoology, followed by a PhD in plant population dynamics. After a few years teaching biology at what is now Anglia Ruskin University, I joined the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in 1991, looking at large-scale interactions between agriculture and biodiversity. I led the UK Farm Scale Evaluations of GM crops, the largest agro-ecological experiment undertaken. I moved to become Head of North Wyke Research in Devon, which focuses on environmental aspects of livestock farming, and has now merged with Rothamsted Research. I was appointed as Chair in Sustainable Agriculture in February 2014, after being appointed Visiting Professor to Leeds University in 2010, and joining the staff in 2011, working on the EXPEER project, that is developing an integrated ecosystems research infrastructure across Europe.

Contact:  Miall 9.17 | +44(0) 113 34 32859 | email address for  

Research Interests

Sustainable land use

My research has always been influenced by my own farming background, and so has focussed strongly on interactions between farming and the environment. My earliest studies were on weed population dynamics, which led to much larger studies looking at different farming systems on biodiversity and agronomy; these systems included organic and GM crops. I was also interested in large scale impacts of land use on the environment and how to measure them, both at the national and European scale. At North Wyke, I worked on the ecosystem services delivered by livestock agriculture, and how to measure and manipulate them experimentally.

I am working on the European project EXPEER, that is integrating ecosystem research infrastructures across Europe be developing shared access to protocols, data and facilities. This work is an essential step in developing a consistent and integrated view of how our planet is changing. I am also developing a project looking at how biodiversity and ecosystem functions change over spatial scales.

I am researching the idea of sustainable intensification, of increasing both food production and environmental quality of agricultural land at a time when the climate is beocme more challenging, and energy and nutrient prices are rising. I'm leading a White Rose project Towards more nutrient, carbon and energy-efficient agricultural systems that seeks to develop a new experimental approach to sustainable agriculture research in the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York, along with FERA and the Syngenta Centre at the University of Manchester. This project is collecting a wide range of ecological and production parameters, to show how it is possible to integrate fundamental research, innovative sensing technology and agronomic expertise to develop and test potential farming systems for a future in which energy, water and nutrients are much more valuable than at the moment.

Sustainable intensification is not just an issue for the countryside; it is also an issue for towns and cities. I was one of the team that put together the Leeds University garden explaining ecosystem services, that won the gold medal at the 2012 Chelsea Flower Show and am increasingly interested in the interplay between supply of and demand for ecosystem services in urban areas.

I am interested in the wider development of sustainable land management, and engage with both industry and public policy.

External appointments:   Member Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE); Defra Demonstration Test Catchment Science Advisory Committee;  Independent Director, Assured Food Standards Ltd.  Editorial boards Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment; International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability and Journal of Environmental Management.


Selected outputs (2004 on)



Firbank, L.G., Elliott, J., Drake, B., Cao, Y & Gooday, R. (2013) Evidence of sustainable intensification among British farms. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 173 58-65.

Firbank, L.G., Bradbury, R.B., McCracken, D.I. & Stoate, C. (2013) Delivering multiple ecosystem services from enclosed farmland in the UK. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 166 65-75.


Firbank, L. (2012) Pathways to global sustainable agriculture. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. 10 1-4.


Brooks, D.R., Storkey, J., Clark, S.J., Firbank, L.G., Petit, S. & Woiwod, I.R. (2011) Trophic links between functional groups of arable plants and beetles are stable at a national scale. Journal of Animal Ecology 81 4-13.

Scholefield, P., Firbank, L., Butler, S., Norris, K., Jones L.M. & Petit, S., (2011). Modelling the European Farmland Birds Indicator in response to forecast land-use change in Europe. Ecological Indicators 11 46-51.


Pilgrim, E.S., Macleod, C.J.A., Blackwell, M.S.A., Bol, R., Hogan, D.V., Chadwick, D.R., Cardenas, L., Misselbrook, T.H., Haygarth, P.M., Brazier, R.E., Hobbs, P., Hodgson, C.,  Jarvis, S., Dungait, J., Murray, P.J. & Firbank, L.G.  (2010). Interactions among agricultural production and other ecosystem services delivered from European temperate grassland systems. Advances in Agronomy109, 117-154.


Firbank, L. (2009) Commentary: It's not enough to develop agriculture that minimises environmental impact. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability7 151-152

Norton, L., Johnson, P., Joys, A., Stuart, R., Chamberlain, D., Feber, R., Firbank, L., Manley, W., Wolfe, M., Hart, B., Mathews, F., Macdonald, D. & Fuller, R.J. (2009) Consequences of organic and non-organic farming practices for field, farm and landscape complexity. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 129 221-227


Firbank L.G. (2008) Assessing the ecological impacts of bioenergy projects. Bio-Energy Research 1 12-19

Firbank, L., Petit, S., Smart, S., Blain, A & Fuller, R. (2008). Assessing the impacts of agricultural intensification on biodiversity. Phil. Trans Royal Soc 363 777-787

Henle, K., Alard, D., Clitherow, J., Cobb, P., Firbank, L., Kull, T., McCracken, D., Moritz, R., Mühle, H., Niemelä, J., Nowicki, P., Rebane, M., Wascher, D., Watt A., & Young, J.  (2008). Identifying and managing the conflicts between agriculture and biodiversity conservation in Europe – a review. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 124 60-71.



Firbank, L.G., Rothery, P., May, M.J., Clark, S.J., Scott, R.J., Stuart, R.C., Boffey, C.W.H., Brooks, D.R., Champion, G.T.,  Haughton, A.J., Hawes, C., Heard, M.S., Dewar, A.M., Perry, J.N.  and Squire, G.R. (2006). Effects of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant cropping systems on weed seedbanks in following years Biology Letters  2, 140-143

Gibbons, D.W., Bohan, D.A., Rothery, P., Stuart, R., Haughton, A.J., Scott, R.J., Wilson, J.D., Perry, J.N., Clark, S.J. , Dawson, R.J.G. and Firbank, L.G. (2006). Weed seed resources for birds in fields with contrasting conventional and genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops Proc Royal Soc B 273 1921-1928

Smart, S.M., Marrs, R.H., Le Duc, M.G., Thompson, K., Bunce, R.G.H., Firbank, L.G. & Rossall, M.J. (2006) Spatial relationships between intensive land cover and residual plant species diversity in temperate, farmed landscapes Journal of Applied Ecology 43, 1128-1137

Smart, S.M., Thompson, K., Marrs, R.H., Le Duc, M.G. & Firbank, L.G. (2006) Biodiversity loss and biotic homogenization across human-modified ecosystems Proc R Soc B273, 2659-2665.


Brooks, D.R., Clark, S.J., Perry, J.N., Bohan, D.A., Champion, G.T., Firbank, L.G., Haughton, A.J., Hawes, C., Heard, M.S. & Woiwod, I.P. (2005). Invertebrate biodiversity in maize following withdrawal of triazine herbicides Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B, 272, 1497-1502.

Firbank, L.G. (2005) Striking a new balance between agricultural production and biodiversity. Annals of Applied Biology 146 163-175.

Firbank, L., Lonsdale, M. & Poppy, G. (2005). Re-assessing the environmental risks of GM crops. Nature Biotechnology 23 1475-1476

Fuller, R.J., Norton, L.R., Feber, R.E., Johnson, P.J.,  Chamberlain, D.E., Joys, A.C., Mathews, F., Stuart, R.C, Townsend, M.C, Manley, W.J, Wolfe, M.S., Macdonald, D.W., Firbank, L.G. (2005) Benefits of organic farming vary among taxa. Biology Letters 1 431-434.

Smart, S.M., Bunce, R.G.H., Marrs, R., LeDuc, M., Firbank, L.G., Maskell, L.C., Scott, W.A., Thompson, K. & Walker, K. (2005). Large-scale changes in the abundance of common higher plant species across Britain between 1978, 1990 and 1998 as a consequence of human activity: tests of hypothesised changes in trait representation Biological Conservation 124, 355-371.


Perry, J.N. Firbank, L.G. Champion G.T., Clark, S.J. Heard, M.S. May, M.J. Hawes, C.. Squire G. R, Rothery P., Woiwod I.& Pidgeon J. (2004)  Ban on triazine herbicides likely to reduce but not negate relative benefits of GMHT maize cropping Nature 428 313-316

Pywell, R.F., Warman, E.A. Sparks, T.H., Greatorex-Davies, J.N. Walker, K.J. Meek, W.R., Carvell, C. Petit, S. Firbank, L.G. (2004). Assessing habitat quality for butterflies on intensively managed arable farmland. Biological Conservation 118 313-325.



Armenteras, D., Finlayson, C.M., Agard, J., Butchart, S.H.M., Carino, C., Cheung, W.W.L., Collen, B., Firbank, L.G., Hockings, M., Hoft, R., Kitzes, J., McGeoch, M.A., Prip, C., Oldfield, T.E.E., Redford, K.H. & Toivonen, H. (Due 2012) Chapter 5: Biodiversity. In UN Global Environmental Outlook 5. United Nations.

Firbank L (2012) Assessing the environmental risks and opportunities of bioenergy cropping. In: Sustainable Bioenergy and Bioproducts (Eds Gopalakrishnan, K., van Leeuwen, J & Brown R.), pp 189-212. Springer-Verlag, London.

Firbank, L.G., Bradbury, R.B., McCracken, D.I. & Stoate, C. (2011). Enclosed Farmland. In: UK National Ecosystem Assessment: Technical Report. pp 197-240. UK National Ecosystem Assessment. UNEP – WCMC, Cambridge.

UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge.Anderson, M. & Firbank L. (co-ordinating lead authors) (2009). Setting the stage. In: Agriculture at a crossroads: International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and technology for Development. Volume IV. North America and Europe. (Eds McIntyre, B.D., Herren, H.R., Wakhungu, J & Watson, R.T.), pp 1-19. Island Press, New York.

Firbank, L., Harrison, H.M, Harrison N., Haley, D. & Griffith, B. (2009). A Story of Becoming: Landscape Creation Through an Art/Science Dynamic. What is Land For? The Food, Fuel and Climate Change Debate (eds M. Winter, M. Lobley), pp 233-246. Earthscan, London.

Feber, R.E., Asteraki, L. & Firbank L.G. (2007). Can farming and wildlife coexist? In: Key topics in Conservation Biology (Eds Macdonald, D.W. & Service, K.), pp  239-252. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.


Panel member I'm A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here! Debate on GM. June-July 2012 http://imascientist.org.uk/

Firbank, L, Kunin, W, Mitchell, G. & Slack R. (2013) Lead scientists, University of Leeds gold-medal winning exhibit at Chelsea Flower Show 2012; Gardening for Champions. http://gardenchampions.leeds.ac.uk/

Firbank L. (2011) Farming in the future: Nature versus necessity. Global Food Security Blog, BBSRC, http://www.foodsecurity.ac.uk/blog/index.php/2011/04/farming-in-the-future-nature-versus-necessity/

Firbank, L. (2007). Sowing the seeds of farming's future. BBC Green Room http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7092407.stm


Current Projects

Defra Sustainable Intensification Platform (Project 1) (website to follow)

MycoRhizaSoils (Website to follow)

Exprimentation in Ecosystem Research (ExpeER)



Faculty Research and Innovation

Studentship information

Postgraduate studentship areas:

  • Sustainable agriculture; ecological monitoring; ecosystem services; land use

See also:

Modules managed

BLGY2192 - Experimental Design and Analysis

Modules taught

BLGY1117 - Ecology in a Changing World
BLGY1304 - Research Exp. Skills Level 1
BLGY2192 - Experimental Design and Analysis
BLGY2301 - Research Experience and Skills Level 2
BLGY3021 - Research Project
BLGY3340 - Biology Research Projects


David Brooks