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Talking dirty – why we need to love our soils


If I was asked what one thing we could do to help the environment, my answer would be simple: we need to improve the health of our soils.

Not that many of us think about the soils beneath our feet; the muddy, silty or sandy stuff that we might walk over during a stroll by the river. But soils are important and for me they’re also exciting – they are dark crumbly worlds essential to our earth and home to mini-mini beasts that we can’t even see. I’m not just talking about earthworms (although I do love earthworms), there are so many tiny species that live in healthy soil – and that make soil healthy. But because we can’t see them, we don’t notice their ecosystem has started to degrade.

The earth’s soils are working overtime

Right now the earth’s soils are working hard to feed our growing population. Agricultural production is the largest industry on earth; it uses about one third of available land mass (in Britain this figure is around 70%). The fact we work the land so intensively has an impact on the soil and can reduce agricultural productivity – last year I visited the LEAF farm in Cambridge and saw first-hand that unhealthy soils can stunt crop growth.

Impacted by soils: a Bullhead within a rare English chalk stream © Charlotte SamsImpacted by soils: a Bullhead within a rare English chalk stream © Charlotte Sams

I also visited the Allteron Project in Leicestershire, who demonstrated that unhealthy compacted soils can’t absorb water the way healthy soils can, which leads to run-off from agricultural fields.

This soil ‘run-off’ smothers the river bed as well as carrying pesticides, nitrates and phosphorous which causes the water environment to become too rich in nutrients. This is one of the biggest threats to England’s rivers as it impacts our wildlife, including species like the brown trout and Atlantic salmon, which don’t like to breed on muddy river bottoms. And there’s other consequences; lots of sediment in the river impacts the way the river functions and can contribute to flooding downstream.

Working with farmers and business

So, how can we make our soils healthier? At WWF-UK, through our partnerships with Coca-Cola and the Norfolk Rivers Trust, we have worked with farmers in Norfolk to improve soil quality, which has helped to safeguard the health of the River Nar. Farmers know better than anyone what must be done on their land to improve soil, and, together, we have created farm plans that set out solutions to improve land management and soil health on 16 farms.

The River Nar at Emmanuel’s Common before restoration © Cr Charles Rangeley-WilsonThe River Nar at Emmanuel’s Common before restoration © Charles Rangeley-Wilson AFTER: The River Nar at Emmanuel’s Common after restoration © Charles Rangeley-WilsonAFTER: The River Nar at Emmanuel’s Common after restoration © Charles Rangeley-Wilson

To date this has resulted in over 2000 acres of improved land, installation of 23 silt traps to intercept soil run-off from fields, and increased water available in the catchment (healthy soils absorb more water). In addition, we’ve restored 3.5km of the River Nar that runs through agricultural land back to its natural state. This means there’s more space for water and the river can cope better with agricultural run-off.

The UN International Year of Soils

Impacted by soils; clown fish on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia © Kathy HughesImpacted by soils; clown fish on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia © Kathy Hughes

But this project is but a grain of sand in the desert because right now, all over the world, from the River Nar in Norfolk, to the Yangtze River in China, to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – our precious watery environments are becoming smothered with the soils that should be on the land. But there are things that can be done here and now, and I think it would be great if more businesses could get involved in projects such as ours in the River Nar – supporting farmers towards better and more sustainable production. This year is the UN International Year of Soils and so there’s never been a better time to start spreading the word about healthy soils.

What do you think of Kathy’s blog? Leave us your comments.

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