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High time to value soils that support life

Posted: Friday 15th July 2016 by HarryBarton

A photo of bare soil

Our soils are an incredible living organism. But damaged and degraded, their ability to support life is diminishing. It's time for those in power to value them properly and consider their future health, says DWT Chief Executive Harry Barton

Every now and then a report is published that states the blindingly obvious. Last month’s report on Soil Health by the Environmental Audit Committee, which gave a damning indictment of the UK’s soil health and the lack of any strategy for managing or monitoring it, was a good example.

Only last week it was backed up by the latest report from the Committee on Climate Change, which cited damage to soils as one of the highest risks we face in the coming years.

The EAC’s report pulls no punches. Management of the country's uplands, wetlands, agricultural lands and former contaminated land all come in for some withering criticism, with some activities like peat burning and maize growing in for a particularly prolonged slapping.

In short, we've been treating our soils as a ubiquitous and free resource, and we have failed to take account of either their value or the costs of degrading them. No great surprise then that, if we continue as we are, many of our most productive soils will cease to be commercially useful within a generation.

Devon's soil challenges

Devon is blessed with a great variety of soils. Among them we have the peat bogs on Dartmoor that store organic material built up over thousands of years; the unimproved grasslands on the Culm measures, a valuable store of water, filtering it, releasing it in times of drought and storing it in times of flood; and the rich and fertile Devon Redlands.

But the county is a depressingly good case study for most of the problems highlighted in the EAC report.

Where I live in the South Hams, the soils are a beautiful rusty red. It's hilly land here, and throughout much of the winter and spring many fields are bare of vegetation and at the mercy of the wind and rain. And when the heavens open, the ditches and streams turn red. Standing on top of Burgh Island at Bigbury-on-Sea after a heavy rain storm, you can see the whole bay stained a reddish-brown with the silt washed down the river Avon, often trapped inshore by the contrastingly blue waters of the Atlantic.

The maize problem

This week the East Devon Catchment Partnership (which Devon Wildlife Trust co-hosts with Westcountry Rivers Trust) released some research commissioned from Chantal Brown Consultants that looked at the impacts of maize growing on 30 farms. It made some alarming discoveries: 

  • Less than 20% of the land used for maize production was likely to be suitable for maize growing without damaging the soil.
  • Nearly 95% of the land was at high risk of run-off
  • Nearly 60% of land was at risk of erosion and gullying.
  • Over 50% of land was at high risk of slurry pollution.

Perhaps just as concerning was the very low level of awareness among farmers of the financial and legal risks of pollution.

Life in the soil

Soil is a living super-organism. A hectare of soil in good condition can contain 50 tonnes of living material. This is made up of tens of thousands of species of bacteria, hundreds of species of algae, fungi and invertebrates such as worms, and countless others.

As well as the basis of our food production, soil detoxifies, recycles, regulates and stores everything from water to carbon. 3-5 billion tonnes of carbon is stored in the UK’s peatlands, and 3.7 million tonnes is lost every year. That’s the equivalent of the combined emissions of Edinburgh, Leeds and Cardiff.

The good news is that many of these problems are preventable and at no great cost. In Bavaria there are rules that prevent maize growing on steep slopes. A slight reduction in grazing pressure, particularly in winter time, can be enough to prevent peat becoming exposed and eroded.

What measures like these require is political will and long sightedness, not huge amounts of cash.

Protecting soils for the future

To quote Franklin D Roosevelt, a nation that destroys its soil destroys itself. Every great civilisation - Egypt, Mesopotamia, Indus Valley and Ancient China - was founded on an area of rich soil. And history is peppered with examples of those that have fallen into long term decline once their soils' productivity collapsed.

If you want to see how much peat can disappear in 150 years, take a look at the posts at Holme Fen in Cambridgeshire, hammered into the ground and now standing 13 feet exposed.

It takes at least 500 years to create an inch of top soil but less than an hour to lose it.

The floods in recent years have prompted government to start looking seriously at the value of water and the services it provides. It is high time we started doing the same for our soils. 


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