Soil – a precious resource under threat

It’s fair to say most of us don’t know a great deal about soil. It’s that brown muddy stuff
that makes things grow and gets lodged under your fingernails after a day in the garden – right?
Soil is made up of the following main components:
• minerals that come from rocks below or nearby,
• organic matter made from the remains of plants and animals,
• the living organisms that live in the soil,
• air and water.
An inch layer of fertile topsoil can take many hundreds of years to form. And the fact is we’d be in trouble without it.Soil performs a variety of functions essential
to human life, but it’s often overlooked and taken for granted. According to the Soil Association, 95 per cent of the food we eat comes from the soil; not to mention the fact that it helps provide us with clean water, makes us resilient to floods and
droughts, and is one of our biggest stores of carbon. But, like so many of the amazing natural assets on our planet, soil is under threat and we’re losing it at an alarming rate. According to The Committee on Climate Change report (2015), the UK has lost 84 per cent of its fertile topsoil since 1850, with the erosion continuing at a rate of 1cm to 3cm a year. The Sustainable Food Trust reports that, globally, 52 per cent of all soils are now classified as degraded – a process which ultimately turns 30 million acres of food-producing land into desert every year. So how exactly is soil ‘lost’?
A number of factors can contribute to soil loss: it can be lost to development – literally
paved over or built on. It can be eroded by wind or rain – this is a natural process that normally takes place very slowly over a long time, but when forests are cleared to make way for agricultural crops, for example, the process is accelerated. During rainfall or wind, the new crops do not ‘hold on’ to the soil in the same way that the vast tree roots did, and the protective leafy canopies of the trees no longer shield the soil from the elements, so it gets washed or blown away. Soil health can also be impacted by the
repeated use of artificial fertilisers which can, over time, actually reduce soil fertility. It does this as the process normally comes hand-in hand with a reduction in organic matter to the soil. The result is a dramatic reduction in soil life and the natural systems which maintain fertility. But all hope is not lost. Soil can be restored over time and a range of management practices can be employed to enable it to function properly again. Growing cover crops rather than leaving soil bare can help prevent erosion, for
example, and adding nutrients in the form or muck (human or bovine) can increase fertility and organic matter levels. The key is all with the life in the soil. When we see bugs and worms in our soil, we know we are on the right track. This hidden, often microscopic, world, breaks down organic matter to provide plants with available nutrients, they aerate the soil to relieve compaction, and they create chemicals, which help bind the soil and reduce opportunities for erosion. It is quite simple really. If we keep the soil covered with a natural mulch like leaves, compost or bark, the soil life
will do the rest for us.  It is this very link to the life in the soil that the late Arthur Hollins recognised throughout his research at Fordhall. He knew that it was this life
which had maintained our soils for millennia, and it was only through supporting and
encouraging the soil life that he would rebuild the natural fertility back within his soils. That is why Fordhall is now a pasture-based farm. This way, with our 70+ plant species we can ensure the soil remains covered and the soil life is nurtured. Our worms relieve the compaction of our winter grazing, the microbes turn the dead plant matter and excess roots into nutrients for the next season’s growth, the deep-rooted plants like plantain help to aerate the soil and the sheer plant diversity ensures all the right
vitamins, sugars and fibres are available to support the vast diversity of life below our feet, which in turn feeds us all above ground. On a smaller scale, anyone with a garden can contribute to protecting this precious resource by nurturing soil health. Mulching, planting or covering bare areas of soil over winter will help prevent soil from being eroded in harsh weather.  Producing your own compost and adding it to the soil will improve its structure and nutrient levels, and growing certain plants can help to
preserve its structure and add nutrients. The more bugs you see in the top few
inches of your soil, the healthier it will become.
Another good test is to smell your soil. It sounds strange, but when you try it, you will
know what I mean. The healthiest and most fertile soils always reside in old established
woodlands. Here, the colour of the soil is dark and rich and the structure is crumbly, but if you press it together then it sticks in small lumps,and if you smell it, you will like it.
Now try the same in your garden. How close are you? Does the soil under the trees and
bushes in your garden appear different from that in your flower beds? Could this be because you manage it differently? How can you move closer to that woodland smell by the small and incremental changes you make?
We would love to hear from you. But remember, whilst the soil can be destroyed quickly, it takes much longer to regenerate itself, so be patient. It will be worth the wait and the
worms and plants will thank you!
For a list of plants you can grow at home to improve your garden soil, visit:

Author – Elizabeth Peck