Why healthy soil is vital to our efforts to restore a healthy, beautiful natural environment

Today the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published its report into soil health.  We gave evidence to the Committee’s inquiry and in this blog Consultancy Manager Sue Cornwell outlines why healthy soil is such an important issue to the National Trust.

This satellite image, taken on 16 February 2014, shows how soil is washed off our fields and out into the sea. ©NEODAAS/University of Dundee

This satellite image, taken on 16 February 2014, shows how soil is washed off our fields and out into the sea. ©NEODAAS/University of Dundee

Soil performs such a wide range of functions that are vital to life: it’s a growing medium for our food and the essential basis for our habitats and the species that rely on them; soil helps to regulate our climate by “locking up” carbon and supports the transfer of water and nutrients from land into our river systems. Soil is home to a huge variety of soil organisms and it holds a wealth of animal and botanical remains, not to mention archaeological artefacts.

Soil appears to be in plentiful supply and so it is tempting to behave as if it will always be available when and where it is needed. The reality is that it is much more like a finite natural resource, as in places the rate of soil erosion is greater than the rate of soil creation. In other places, soil is not performing its functions as well as it might because its structure has been damaged, for example by compaction or because vital organic matter has been lost.

Within the National Trust, as part of our ambition to create a healthy and beautiful natural environment, we have been working harder to understand what we can do to conserve our soils and to improve their condition. Last year we completed a rapid review of our soils as part of a broader assessment of the condition of all our land. Because soil type and condition can vary greatly within relatively short distances, achieving a step-change in soil management will involve reviewing, often on a field-by field basis, whether land use is appropriate in light of the characteristics of the soil, the underlying geology, topography (especially slope and height) and the climate.

We are trialling a new tool, Land Choices, to help those making decisions about land use and management to gather more detailed information, review options and develop recommendations for management that are in keeping with the land’s capability.

Taking a close look at a clump of soil, Aira Force and Ullswater Valley, Cumbria. ©National Trust/Paul Harris

Taking a close look at a clump of soil, Aira Force and Ullswater Valley, Cumbria. ©National Trust/Paul Harris

Those who have already begun to consider these issues are making changes to their management. For example, in Northern Ireland, at our Mount Stewart property, potato production is being phased out on fields considered to be at high risk of soil damage. At our Stackpole Estate in Wales, legume-rich ley grasslands and rotational grazing have been introduced in order to stabilise fragile soils. Our Wimpole estate in Cambridgeshire has made a switch from conventional arable cropping to organic cereals to improve soil organic matter content and structure. A number of our upland properties including the High Peak, are restoring the condition of upland peat, to improve its ability to function as both a water and carbon store.

There is a great deal more to do across our estate before we can say with confidence that our soils are in good health. The report of the Environmental Audit Committee is a timely reminder of the need for continued focus on an often overlooked, but vital natural asset.

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