Taking the initiative to deliver soil health for UK agricultural soils

Today a new initiative for soil health is launching at Cereals 2018. Scientists, academics, industry farm advisers and farming bodies have come together to take a long-term approach to understanding and improving the health of soils across UK farmland for generations to come. The National Trust is partnering in the initiative, and here we take a look at why it’s so needed.

Our soils are like the natural environment’s vital signs. And they’re not looking great. A few years ago a study revealed the UK only has 100 harvests left in its soil. More recently Environment Secretary Michael Gove warned that the UK is 30-40 years away from ‘eradication of soil fertility’.

It may look like there’s lots of it around, but the reality is that in places the rate of soil erosion is greater than the rate of soil creation. Moreover, it’s the quality that counts.  In some places, soil is not performing its functions as well as it might because its structure has been damaged, whether by compaction or because vital organic matter has been lost.

So this crucial resource that we all rely upon to perform a wide range of functions that are vital to life needs our help.

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

How will this new initiative help?

This new body has been formed in response to the Government’s 25 year environment plan ambition that all England’s soils should be managed sustainably by 2030, supporting profitable and productive farming, and underpinning targets for clean water and air. Those involved will work with all devolved governments to deliver this aspiration across the UK.

Working closely with Government, through voluntary actions, the approach will help farmers and growers to pass on soils under agricultural management to the next generation protected and enhanced.

Through initial meetings, the partnership recognised that work to address soil health is quite extensive. However, to date all this effort has lacked coordination. Working with the farming community, the emerging initiative will look to deliver a consistent and coordinated approach to improving soil health across the UK.

Efforts will build on the existing knowledge and skills base bringing together information, best practice and develop new approaches.  Identifying knowledge gaps and encouraging research into such areas will be an important part of the early work.

Initial backing has come from a range of research and advisory organisations, agrisupply businesses and soil laboratories as well farmers and growers. However, the partnership is keen expand to ensure as wide a representation of interests and disciplines as possible.

How is the National Trust playing its part?

Here at the Trust we look after 250,000 hectares of land with 1,800 farm tenants.  As the nation’s largest single farmer, we strongly believe the long term viability of farming depends upon an improved natural environment, healthy soils and clean water.

We’re working with our tenants and land managers to improve the management of our soils, so it’s great to be involved in initiatives like the one being launched today, that are working across the UK to bring researchers, advisers, and farmers together to identify on-farm approaches to assessing soil health, and how to manage land to promote healthy soils.

What are the next steps?

Work will be undertaken to establish the characteristics for soil health and on-farm approaches to monitor them over time. While some measures, such as earthworms, can change quite rapidly, others such as soil organic matter change slowly, often over many years. Therefore, those involved are committed to a long-term approach to measuring soil health improvement.

On-farm advice will play a critical part. There will be no one-size fits all blueprint as improving soil health will be, in part, built on existing practice, soil type, climate, etc. Whether growing combinable crops, field vegetables or grass and forage crops there will be options to enhance productivity and soil health. The new initiative seeks to help farmers and growers understand how to manage soils for both improved productivity and increased sustainability, based on healthy soils.

In the coming months, partners will promote the importance of measuring soil physical condition and topsoil organic matter alongside routine indicators for improved nutrient management. Case studies of best practice that already exist on farm will be developed alongside clear evidence that enables the agricultural industry to improve soil husbandry to support profitable and productive farming.

For more on our views of the future of farming, agriculture and the natural environment take a look at the rest of the blog or our website.

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