Jim Densham, our senior land use policy officer, tells us why we should really care more about soil.

When I have told people I am writing a blog article about soil the general reaction has been mild laughter. Soil just isn’t sexy or inspiring. However, when you think about it, you realise soil is vital for life. It underpins our ecosystem foodchains and is the medium in which we grow our food so it’s pretty important. Perhaps we are conditioned to not like dirt from childhood – “Wipe your muddy feet before you come in here”. Let’s face it, unless you are a farmer or a soils scientist most of us don’t think about soil, let alone be inspired by it.

  credit: Andy Hay (www.rspb-images.com

Just think about wildlife’s interactions with soil for a minute. Starting at the smallest level 1 teaspoon of soil can contain 10,000 different species of bacteria and fungi. Soils are packed full of tiny organisms, much of which is food for birds and other wildlife. Think of a blackbird pulling a worm from the ground or a curlew probing for invertebrates. Soil is the place in which many insects spend their larval stage and where other animals burrow to hibernate or give birth. Even some birds, such as kingfishers, sand martins and puffins use burrows. And, I haven’t mentioned plants which grow in soil, and habitats which are where they are because of the soil type.

  credit: Chris Gomersall (www.rspb-images.com)

Are you inspired yet? What about the other less known functions of soil. Scotland has abundant peaty soils which store more than 10 times the amount of carbon as in all the UK’s forests. Our soils filter and store billions of litres of water, and preserve our culture and archaeology. And of course, soil is used to grow food and timber, worth millions to the Scottish economy.

Last month Government launched Scotland’s soils website http://www.soils-scotland.gov.uk/ and I was asked for my opinions of it. I think it’s a useful website bringing together lots of existing information, literature and science and presenting it coherently. There are some good stats, cool infographics and information about why soils are important.

One gripe is that it could do more to outline the current state of Scotland’s soil or the pressures on it. For example, RSPB Scotland is very concerned about the state of our vast peatland soils and habitats in Scotland. 40% of peatland sites designated for nature are in unfavourable condition and there is little data on the quality of soil in other peatland areas http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/peatlands_tcm9-263559.pdf . The State of Scotland’s Soils report http://www.soils-scotland.gov.uk/documents/15130508_SOSreport.pdf highlighted the issues affecting our soils. It listed many threats to soil biodiversity and considered it as a high concern, but also showed many uncertainties due to lack of data.

But, what I want the new website to do most of all is to inspire those who manage our countryside to appreciate all the functions of soil and manage it more sustainably. Soil is one of the building blocks of life - essential for wildlife, ecosystems and our economy. If we are to look after our soil we need to stop taking it for granted and value it for ALL its many benefits. Should it be Government’s job to inspire the public about soil through this new website – probably not. Should the website be used and developed to inspire land managers about soil and how to look after it – yes. Should it be Government’s job to put measures in place to protect and enhance fragile and finite soil stocks – very definitely.

  credit: Ben Andrew (www.rspb-images.com)