Soil Health Contents

5Monitoring soil trends

79.Knowledge of the state of our soils is crucial to many of the issues discussed above, from the level of carbon in soils, to the effects of land management practices on soil quality. Defra emphasised the importance of soil monitoring:

Soil monitoring provides evidence on the state of and change in our soils. National scale soil monitoring tells us about the ‘population’ of national soils, in terms of their ability to perform different functions, but not about soils at individual sites as there is not enough sampling at each site.149

80.However, there is currently no UK-wide scheme for monitoring changes in soil health. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology explained that previous monitoring schemes have not been continued and that the EU scheme currently being undertaken cannot provide useful UK-level data:

“In the past, several soil monitoring schemes have provided us with valuable information either for GB as a whole (Countryside Survey), England and Wales (National Soil Inventory), and Scotland (National Soil Inventory Scotland). To our knowledge, none have secured funding to continue into the future. In addition, a range of public bodies are responsible for monitoring specific aspects of soil health. [ … ] Currently, only an EU level soil monitoring programme (LUCAS) is active within the UK as a whole. However, the LUCAS sampling strategy is too sparse and has an inappropriate sampling structure to provide meaningful change data at the UK level.”150

81.This situation is not new. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s 1996 report on soil lamented the lack of soil monitoring and recommended that a national scheme be set up:

Limited monitoring of soil attributes is taking place in the UK at the relatively small number of terrestrial sites within the Environmental Change Network. We consider more extensive monitoring on an integrated national scale is an essential element of a UK soil protection policy. To complement the monitoring of air and water quality, we recommend the setting-up of a national soil quality monitoring scheme, for which responsibility should lie with central government.151

82.The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology also noted that research has been presented to the Government on effective ways to take forward soil measurement:

A team of leading UK soil scientists involved in soil monitoring identified the most statistically efficient (and thus cost effective) approach as one with a sampling structure that ensures sampling effort covers as many land types as possible (Black et al. 2008). Combining this stratified sampling approach with multi-purpose surveys (e.g. of vegetation and water) can also increase cost efficiency as it provides data relevant to a wide range of national and international environmental commitments as well as their inter-dependencies (e.g. has change in land management or plant species composition been observed where soil health has changed?). This approach recognises that soils do not act in isolation but are closely connected and impacted by land management and vegetation change.152

The study referred to here is ‘Design and operation of a UK soil monitoring network’ (2008), which was commissioned by the Environment Agency with Defra as collaborators. This report recommended that sampling options for combining existing schemes, including those in different UK countries, would achieve a “whole greater than the sum of its parts”.153 The Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management expressed a similar view, saying that any new monitoring scheme should ensure it draws upon the previous work of the National Soil Inventory and the Countryside Survey.154

83.Prof Jim Harris (Cranfield) noted that UK environmental research “punches above its weight” in this area.155 Several witnesses also explained that effective soil monitoring is not an insurmountable problem and we should not be misled into thinking it excessively complex. We were told that a range of options for monitoring were possible based on available budget, and that the expertise for monitoring is already in place.156 The James Hutton Institute argued that “current knowledge is sufficient to establish robust monitoring”.157

84.A number of witnesses said that soil organic carbon was the most important indicator of soil health to measure.158 The National Farmers’ Union stressed, however, that soil health is multi-faceted, and called for flexibility and consideration of “the wide range of variables which affect soil condition.” They rejected approaches which use a single indicator as a proxy for soil health.159

85.Lancaster Environment Centre said that monitoring should focus on properties relating to the services soil delivers:

Soil health metrics should focus on vital soil properties that are critical to the provision of crucial ecosystem services (e.g. climate change mitigation, regulation of hydrology, nutrient dynamics, food security). Soils should be monitored at 5 year intervals in their entirety to the base of the soil, so that changes in biodiversity, chemistry, physical condition and stocks of macronutrients e.g. carbon and nitrogen, can be properly quantified. Monitoring needs to cover a full range of UK soils, landscapes and climates, including urban areas.160

86.Prof Dave Chadwick recommended that soil should be measured alongside other key environmental indicators to ensure a joined-up approach:

Otherwise, if you had one team measuring soil over here, another team measuring biodiversity over there, you don’t get [ … ] joining up until probably much later in the process.161

87.Lord Krebs (Committee on Climate Change) suggested that monitoring was required in order to measure progress against the Government’s ambition that all soils be managed sustainably by 2030:

“If you do not measure whether you are moving in the right direction, you will not know [ … ] I do not see why there should not be a national monitoring scheme to ensure that if we have this ambitious target that Defra has that we know whether it is successfully implementing it.162

David Powlson (Rothamsted Research) echoed this view, saying that “if we do not measure things to do with soil over time you do not know whether they are getting better or worse, other than in an anecdotal way.”163

88.Defra argued that since “soil properties change very slowly over time, more frequent monitoring is not justified”. Rory Stewart, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Defra, said:

The basic soil sampling in this country has been done in regular bursts taking place every decade or two decades in a regular set of sequences. The work done between the 1940s and the early 1980s created the soil map, the association series for the United Kingdom that laid out the different types of geology and soil across the country. Since then what we conduct is reviews that will happen every decade or two decades and we would intend to have another one of those reviews.164

89.On future monitoring schemes, Defra said it is working with partners to explore a future Countryside Survey which would take account of new monitoring techniques, though no decisions have been taken. Mr Stewart noted that he is “very open to sitting down with people and talking it through, but we do need to do a serious cost benefit analysis.” Defra noted that it had been working since 2003 to develop a set of soil quality indicators for use in monitoring, and that soils will have a role in natural capital accounting:

On individual ecosystem accounts, there is a focus on carbon in soils, using National Forest Inventory (NFI) data for woodlands and Countryside Survey data for farmland. Recognising its importance, consideration is also being given to a standalone peatland account.165

Monitoring schemes in the devolved administrations

90.The Committee heard about soil monitoring schemes in Wales, which are performed in tandem with assessments of how successful Rural Development Programme subsidy payments are in promoting ecosystems services among farmers. This programme spends 2% of Rural Development Programme payments, as sanctioned by the EU, on evaluation. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology explained that this had been used as the basis for a rolling annual monitoring programme of soil and other natural resources through the Glastir Monitoring and Evaluation Programme (GMEP):

Ongoing change is tracked relative to change over the last 30 years [ … ] providing both national-scale reporting and objective assessments of the Glastir scheme benefits for soil health. [ … ] GMEP ensures compliance with the recommended guidance from the EU for ca. 2% of the RDP to be used to assess the success / outcomes of payments to farmers. This multi-purpose survey approach and funding model could potentially be rolled across the UK providing a valuable national framework for a wide range of ad hoc evidence-based surveys relating to a range of policy initiatives such as agri-environment schemes, designations, etc.”166

Prof Dave Chadwick (Bangor University) described the operation of the GMEP programme as a rolling program analysing 75 squares each year:

We have been running now for nearly four years, and the statistical design means that 75 one-kilometre square areas are randomly selected each year. Within that there are two cohorts of squares: one set of squares that are called the wider Wales, where we try to get information. The sort of control population where there are not a lot of payments through ecosystem services through Glastir, and the other half is where there is a lot more payment. [ … ] [T]he total programme costs around £8.5 million, or has cost for four years of running, and the soil component of that represents around 12% of that value. That is covering these 300 squares, one-kilometre grid squares, and, as I say, that will be repeated next year when we start the process again.167

91.The University of Aberdeen said that “much could be learnt from Scotland’s follow-on soil survey” which revisited a subset of sites to measure changes over time using a combination of traditional methods and more in-depth analysis.168

92.As Defra recognises, collection of data is key to developing effective policy. The lack of an ongoing soil national monitoring scheme undermines the Government’s goals to managing soils sustainably. The lack of monitoring prevents us from having nation-wide knowledge about trends in the health of our soil. This gap is not new, and successive Governments have ducked the challenge since the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommended a national monitoring scheme in 1996.

93.While ad hoc studies and one-off research are useful, they cannot replace a rolling national programme. We recognise that the slow-changing nature of soil properties must be borne in mind when designing soil monitoring, but this is not an excuse for long periods without certainty as to when future monitoring will take place. The state of our knowledge about soil health would be better served by an ongoing programme. The evidence we heard suggests that such a programme would be feasible, affordable, and could deliver significant benefits. The Welsh approach of a rolling programme, with one quarter of sites evaluated each year, provides a useful model for this.

94.Defra reports that work on developing soil quality indicators has been ongoing since 2003. It has also been in possession, since 2008, of a report detailing how to combine past monitoring programmes. By now Defra should be in a position to propose a set of indicators and a method of analysis. Our witnesses told us that it is not difficult to assemble a range of indicators to reflect soil health, and that soil organic carbon levels should be central to this.

95.We recommend that the Government develop plans for an ongoing national-scale programme to monitor soil health, potentially aligned with and co-funded by EU payments as in Wales to provide the control for soil change within agri-environment schemes and other initiatives. Merely noting an intention to undertake a new survey in the future, as Defra does, is not adequate—a one-off enterprise each decade does not provide the strategic approach we need to maintain due focus on soil health. A new ongoing programme should ensure coverage of land which has previously reported as undergoing degradation and a suitable range of indicators to assess the provision of ecosystems services.

149 Defra (SHI56)

150 Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (SHI72); See also Prof Mark Kibblewhite (SHI12); Dave Chadwick (Q184/187); David Powlson (Q99); British Ecological Society (SHI58); British Geological Society (SHI36); British Society of Soil Science (SHI30); Soil Security Programme (SHI48); The Geological Society (SHI51); The Permaculture Association Britain (SHI13)

151 Sustainable Use of Soil, The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 1996

152 Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (SHI72)

154 CIWEM (SHI15). See also Lancaster Environment Centre (SHI14); Scotland’s Rural College (SHI22); STARS (SHI55)

155 Jim Harris (Q192)

156 Paul Hallett, Q82; David Powlson, Q85; Richard Bardgett, Q121. See also Dr Neil Humphries (SHI34)

157 James Hutton Institute (SHI52). See also Landscape Institute (SHI45); Wardell Armstrong LLP (SHI69)

158 Peter Melchett (Q70); Willie Towers (Q24); Paul Hallett (Q85/Q118); Richard Bardgett (Q121); David Powlson (Q85); Prof Rod Blackshaw (SHI7); Dr Franciska de Vries (SHI32)

159 National Farmers’ Union (SHI44); See also East Malling Research (SHI57)

160 Lancaster Environment Centre (SHI14) See Stuart Norris (SHI2)

161 Prof Dave Chadwick, Q178

162 Lord Krebs, Q69

163 David Powlson, Q85

164 Rory Stewart, Q234

165 Defra, (SHI56)

166 Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (SHI72); White Rose Sustainable Agriculture Consortium (SHI71); STARS (SHI55)

167 Prof Dave Chadwick, Q185

168 University of Aberdeen (SHI60)

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27 May 2016