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Day 24: What’s beneath your feet?

Posted: Friday 23rd June 2017 by 30DaysWild2017

Boots on mown grassBoots on mown grass

For many of today’s fundamental environmental concerns the answer really does “Lie in the soil”.

“Treading lightly on the Earth” has become a call to use the resources of our planet wisely. However, the phrase has become divorced from one of those key resources, the soil beneath our feet. Treading lightly has come to embrace greenhouse gas emissions, and the idea of carbon footprints, not footprints in the soil. Is soil a legitimate concern for people interested in wildlife?

Wildlife conservation tends to focus on the big and the dramatic, the life that lives in the environment above ground, or in water. We tend to be interested in the ground only if there are holes and crevices into which animals may disappear when foraging or reproducing. From badgers to mining bees we do not consider the soil, only the spaces in it where larger animals live.

Should the soil itself be a focus for Wildlife Trusts? The Worcestershire Wildlife Trust certainly thinks so. The Trust thinks soil should be a concern for everyone since without soil that is in good health other life cannot flourish. Furthermore, soil is similar to fossil fuels, it was built up over a very long period of time, and it is a resource that can be so depleted that all its value can be easily gone. As much as any other resources, when it’s gone it’s gone, it certainly won’t come back, at least for a few thousand years.

Soil is complicated and needs a lot of specialist skills to understand what it consists of and how it functions. But soil is, in fact, no more complex to understand than a terrestrial or a marine ecosystem. There is a detailed science of soils and the consensus is that soils are ecosystems in their own right. They function just like any other system, with complex interactions between the resources and the life forms that live in them.

Disrupt or over exploit these interactions and the system declines and the life Ploughng photo Jovilliersthat it supports deteriorates. There are now indices and maps of soil condition around the world and most soils are in decline or already in poor condition. This is especially so in lowland Britain. If we could see how poorly functioning these soil ecosystems are, we would be appalled.

The Worcestershire Trust became involved in soil conservation because it has a farm. At  Lower Smite Farm the trust aims to farm in a sustainable way. After taking over the site it was soon evident to our agronomist, Caroline Corsie, that the land was in a poor way. No poorer perhaps than the soils of most farms, but in absolute terms it is not a thriving ecosystem. The bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates that make up the soil’s ecosystem are struggling to thrive, much in the same way that we see certain wildflower or bird species struggling to survive in the wider environment.

There are direct consequences for humans of soils which do not contain thriving ecosystems. Soils in poor condition increase flood risk since the soil cannot hold water in sufficient quantity leading to rapid run off, and poor soils are readily washed away and silt up streams and rivers. Food production increasingly comes to depend upon the use of manufactured fertilisers and these run-off and cause problems for the production of drinkable water.

For many of today’s fundamental environmental concerns the answer really does, as Arthur Fallowfield used to say, “Lie in the soil”. This was a joke back in the 1960s when Arthur was at his height, but 50 years later it is a deadly serious answer. Soil quality is linked to declines in wildlife, to problems of sustainable food production, problems of flooding, and water quality.

I was brought up to date with all these concerns at a demonstration yesterday atEarth worm Lower Smite Farm of what the Trust is doing on the issue of its soil quality. We were also told how they are encouraging other landowners to follow suit. Soils are ecosystems in crisis and, like other ecosystems, there are no quick fixes. One of the most obvious indicators of the crisis is in the low diversity and abundance of the invertebrates that live in the soils, including earthworms. The priority is getting organic matter back into the soil. This has to be done in a measured way so that it can be assimilated by the fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates. This allows time for their populations and linkages to re-establish. The benefits of getting it right for both wildlife and humans are enormous.

Graham Martin, Chair of the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust, opinions are my own not those of the Trust., @GrahamMartin99



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