Western Morning News Feature: Why we all Need to Worry about the State of the Nation’s Soils
After a talk by Nichola Simpson from the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust pending work on the Upper River Twyver and
This is an article from the Western Morning News and West Country Rivers Trust which are addressing a similar problem –
England’s green and pleasant land conceals a peril that threatens our very futures, says scientist Dr Laurence Couldrick.
Rainstorm by rainstorm, the land is washing away – and carrying a cocktail of chemicals to pollute rivers, harbours and even the sea.
More than 38% of the soils on farms in the South West are severely degraded already. And before you shrug and leave it to the farmer, Dr Couldrick makes it clear this is everyone’s problem.
You might be surprised to find the chief executive of the Westcountry Rivers Trust so focused on soil health, but for Dr Couldrick, the problems start a long way from the river bank and his trust is partly funded through South West Water’s Upstream Thinking programme in an effort to tackle the problem at source.
There have been apocalyptic pronouncements that eroding soils means we have or 60 or 100 harvests left, and last year Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, warned that the UK has only 40 years of fertile crop growing left because heavy farm machinery and overuse of chemicals will render large tracts infertile.
“It takes hundreds of years to generate a couple of
Intensive agriculture has led to soils that are badly compacted through
Digging a hole may reveal that only the top eight or ten
Instead of water slowly soaking in, it’s likely to run off. We have all seen rivers of muddy water flowing down country lanes, but if it’s not your soil, it’s easy to ignore the scale.
In one experiment Clinton Devon Estates installed a
A study in Cumbria found that in 2015 Storm Desmond flushed 84 tonnes of sediment into a single stream.
Run-off has costs for the farmer who sees their most precious resource vanishing, along with whatever
Chemicals in the environment can come from many sources – a farmer’s inadequate slurry pit,
“A lot of the big problems such as large sewage works affecting bathing waters have been sorted out,”
Whatever their source, once in the rivers, phosphates feed algal blooms, which use up oxygen when the algae
Once the river reaches the sea, sediment builds up in
“South West Water is putting hundreds of thousands of pounds to take sediment out of the drinking water it extracts from rivers,”
For many people, “the soil can be under your feet and yet out of mind”,
Managing soils correctly upstream protects the townie’s home downstream by making flooding less likely. In the longer term, good soil also helps to lock away more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
Most farmers are not wilful polluters, but their margins – and their time – are becoming increasingly squeezed.
In the past we have tried to tighten up regulation but haven’t put any grant systems in place covering wide areas which are vulnerable to pollutants, he says, unlike the Republic of Ireland, where all farmers who have to deal with slurry are entitled to grants to provide enough slurry storage for up to five months.
If slurry storage proves inadequate at times of heavy and prolonged rainfall, the slurry may have to be spread on to the fields, from where it can be washed off the land and into rivers – particularly if the soil is compacted and cannot soak up as much water.
“This has been a relatively wet autumn and winter,”
In the Upstream Thinking
Some farmers may perceive the problem as natural, arguing simply that “it’s a wet year”. Others may set aside land for nature.
Devon Wildlife Trust has pioneered the reintroduction of beavers on the River Otter in East Devon. A side effect of the beavers’ return is improved flood protection and cleaner water.
Michael Gove is proposing a post-Brexit shift of farm subsidies towards rewarding those who deliver environmental good, rather than simply as a payment for owning land.
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