Today is World Soil Day and it gives us a chance to celebrate soils and raise awareness of the importance of sustaining healthy soils. The message of the Day, ‘Stop soil erosion, Save our future’, clearly demonstrates the vital benefits that soils bring, both for human well-being and in sustaining healthy ecosystems in which our habitats and species can thrive.
Soil is far more than just the dirt on our shoes or the mud on our boots. It is one of Scotland’s greatest assets and is a vital natural resource that has evolved over thousands of years. Healthy soils are fundamental to life and human well-being – it forms the basic foundation for sustaining our natural habitats in which species live and thrive, while humans rely on good quality soils for food growth and healthy grazing land for livestock.
Did you know that our soils bring additional hidden benefits too? Carbon storage, water purification, flood prevention and pollution control are all ways in which soils contribute further to a healthy environment. Soils perform an important role in slowing the flow of water through catchments, increasing infiltration and reducing catchment run-off. Only when our soils are healthy can they perform these functions and prevent pollution of watercourses with organic matter and fine sediments. Clean and healthy waters are the lifeblood of Scotland’s rivers, streams, lochs and ponds. In turn, these habitats sustain our important freshwater species, from the smaller insects, amphibians and plants through to many of our iconic species such as freshwater pearl mussels and Atlantic salmon.
Scotland’s soils hold more water than all of our freshwater lochs combined, and the healthier they are (with higher quantities of organic matter) the more water they can store. This enormous capacity for water storage means that soils act as a ‘reservoir’, helping to maintain our watercourses in times of drought. This has become increasingly valuable as we adapt to the more chaotic weather patterns of recent times.
Healthy soils also store vast quantities of carbon which helps to slow the pace of climate change. However, the degradation and erosion of soils has become a major global problem, threatening the sustainability of all the benefits that soils give to us and the environment. Soil erosion is a natural process, but inappropriate land management can trigger accelerated rates of erosion leading to severely detrimental effects. Bare soils, compacted soils or recently ploughed or seeded land are left more vulnerable to erosion by intense or prolonged rainfall events.
Not only is valuable soil and carbon lost from the fields during erosion; the sediment is then rapidly transported into watercourses. This in turn leads to polluted waters with reduced quantities of oxygen and high levels of suspended sediments, and sensitive habitats and species are smothered, damaged or lost to scouring.
Preventing soil erosion and increasing carbon storage are vital in our battles to control climate changes and sustain a nature-rich future. We can all take action to help. Land managers can adopt sustainable soil management practices such as planting cover crops, rotating crops, limiting tillage and building terraces or planting shelter belts to protect our soils from erosion. Scientists can continue their pursuit of innovative techniques and solutions to assist in the control and prevention of soil loss. Scotland’s Peatland ACTION projects are working to restore vast areas of our natural peatland ecosystem. And everyone can plant vegetation to provide ground cover to protect the soil – grasses, shrubs and trees are all valuable, from planted gardens in the smallest urban green space through to larger-scale planting in the countryside. Even the smallest of positive actions will contribute to stopping soil erosion and saving our soils (and their benefits) for future generations.
The World Soils Day web-page offers you more information and resources to help your celebrate, understand and promote the special value of soils. Please visit Scotland’s Soils website for more information and fascinating facts about soils. This includes a Soil Erosion Risk Map covering most of Scotland’s cultivated agricultural land area which highlights areas at risk from soil erosion.