Understanding soils ….

Soils are arguably our most valuable geological resource because they grow virtually all of our food, our timber and most of our natural fibres, so soil feeds, clothes and houses us ! Understanding soils is key to a sustainable future.

Farmers prepare sandy soils for potato growing
Farmers prepare sandy soils for potato growing


Many of us tend to ignore soil – either it’s something dirty or maybe it’s something we just take for granted.   Plants grow, there’s plenty of food, what could be simpler? True, there are problems, we see soil erosion on the TV but it’s always somewhere else, usually in the Tropics.   Locally, things may go wrong with our crops, but we blame the weather or an inefficient farmer.   But what is soil?   Why is it important?   What can go wrong?  What can we do about it anyway? Take a look at any exposed soil, say a road cutting or a river bank, and you will see that it comprises several layers.  You will also see that the nature of these layers varies along the length of the exposure.   Don’t be surprised, soil varies enormously from place to place and this variation is the essential basis of biodiversity.  There are many different properties which contribute to the usefulness of soil, so different types of land use, be it farming, forests, sport fields or conservation areas, tend to be located where soils are best-suited to that purpose

My book “Soils in the Welsh landscape” explains how soils form, and something of the diversity of soils around us. It is not specific to Anglesey but does have several examples from Anglesey.

Soils are far more than just something to grow crops in. Our gardens, woodlands, natural landscapes and even our traditional buildings are all underpinned by soil. Soil varies enormously – it’s not just “dirt” its a wonderful ecosystem all of its own. It contains all sorts of living organisms as well as the plants that grow in it. Many other creatures make their home in soil by burrowing into it. It contains more carbon than the atmosphere and oceans combined so its vital in the fight against climate change.

People using and studying soil

Governments, scientists, researchers, ‘growers’ [farmers, foresters and gardeners] and sportspeople [footballers, cricketers, golfers and walkers] have interests in soil. Even water supply companies need to think about soil.

The British Society of Soil Science [BSSS] is the professional body for soil scientists and their website contains a wealth of information.

The Environment Agency [EA] takes a great interest in soils often from the standpoint of preventing pollution into watercourses from nitrate leaching, from soil erosion and from manure & sewage sludge spreading.

brown earth profile
brown earth profile

Natural Resources Wales covers this remit in Wales. NRW also overs forestry in Wales with some specific advice on the acidification risk. though their website has some very diverse types of references to soil! There is a section looking at the importance of careful management of peat soils

The various government agencies, Environment Agency, DEFRA etc, take a great interest in the management of soils for a variety of reasons, mainly environmental [erosion, flooding, pollution etc] but also from a farming perspective [fertilisers, manure spreading, nitrate leaching etc]. the GOV.UK website contains thousands of relevant documents !

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board [AHDB] is a regulatory and advisory organisation funded by a levy on farmers. Their website hosts the EA publication “Think Soils” which is an excellent manual on managing soil.

Organic farming has its own certification body, the Soil Association. At its heart is a biological approach to farming based on natural soil management, free of chemicals.

Climate Change is affected by how we manage our soils; Peatlands are sinks and sources of natural greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) but all soils contain carbon. BSSS have a scientific note on soil carbon. NRW have a section looking at the importance of careful management of peat soils

Blanket bog upland peat - a fantastic store of carbon
Blanket bog upland peat – a fantastic store of carbon (J Conway)

Educational resources

Educational resources are available from a variety of organisations. the BSSS has a variety of posters to download and resources for all ages, primary to university!

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