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Soil management

Work Package 1.1 - Soil

Research Deliverable 
1.1.4 Soil management
Leading Ideas 
Agriculture
Climate and the Environment

Introduction

Soils provide a range of benefits for society including growing crops and timber, regulating water flow, and storing carbon. However, these functions face threats from soil erosion, compaction, contamination, and losses to urban expansion. It is therefore vital that soils are managed sustainably to ensure that future generations have healthy soils that can provide these functions that are demanded by society and ensure our food security into the future.

Providing tools to enable land managers to sustainably manage soils, reduce degradation of the soil resource and minimise the impact on other parts of the environment can help to protect and enhance soil quality. These tools can range from rapid methods to assess changes in soil quality to providing guidance on which soils are susceptible to erosion or compaction.

The UN sustainable Development goals, the National Performance Framework, the Land Use Strategy and Scottish Soil Framework (and others) all give an overarching context to the current research.

Aim of Research

To support the sustainable use and management of Scotland’s soil resource. We will provide new and improved tools to predict how soil functions respond to land use, management and environmental pressures. These decision support tools will enable users to address a wide range of policies and decision-making across scales from field to national to help improve the management of our natural assets to support sustainable land-based industries, increase the land under sustainable soil management and restore degraded soils to enhance and safeguard the multi-functional capacity of Scotland’s soils under a changing climate and other drivers of change.

Progress

2019 / 2020
2019 / 2020

Sustainable soil management requires that we maintain the multiple functions of the soils. To help achieve this, we have developed and enhanced tools to manage soils at a range of scales to prevent soil loss and protect the aquatic environment, while maintaining key soil functions. These tools include a series of computer-based models and maps to help policy-makers and land managers to manage the land. The maps can be used to inform land managers on which soils are most susceptible to damage and where the risk of run-off and erosion is greatest, thus helping to reduce damage to the soil and to limit diffuse pollution in rivers and streams while retaining the key functions of the soil such as production of food. We have also updated maps of soil wetness, a key factor in limiting agricultural production, by updating the climate data used to generate the maps to reflect Scotland’s changing climate.   The computer models can be used to determine the impacts of climate change and land use on soil organic matter, crop production, leaching and erosion. Along with maps and models, we are developing methods to assess the impact of land use and climate change using novel, rapid sensing techniques such as portable X-ray fluorescence and infra-red spectroscopy to quantify changes in soil properties through time and to provide early warnings of deleterious changes and have developed a mobile phone app to allow citizen’s to record soil erosion and provide us with additional data to validate our models. Our work on assessing how monetary and non-monetary values influence land managers' decisions around sustainable soil management has progressed. A key focus of this work is in quantifying the financial costs of peatland restoration and the financial cost to the environment caused by soil erosion. However, it was also found that the perceptions of the public and land managers are also important in developing policy instruments to improve and maintain sustainable soil use.

Highlights:

  • Caring for ‘Cinderella’ – perceptions and experiences of peatland restoration in Scotland. Researchers explored why people involved in the use, conservation and restoration of peatlands care about peatbogs. Results highlight the importance of personal experiences, relationships and embodied learning. They also show that a lack of knowledge can be a barrier to good care, but acknowledging uncertainty and a lack of knowledge can allow for inclusion of other knowledge and the co-creation of knowledge and caring practices. For this to happen, appropriate structures (e.g. flexible peatland restoration funding) and open and inclusive attitudes are needed.
  • Reducing soil erosion through prediction of erosion vulnerability: We have produced soil erosion risk maps that identify areas of land most susceptible to erosion by water to help land managers adjust cultivations to reduce the impacts of erosion such as sediment and nutrients entering our rivers and streams. The maps (available on Scotland’s Soils website) show how soils and landform combine to increase the likelihood that runoff from saturated soils will cause erosion resulting in the loss of valuable topsoil, nutrients and carbon.
  • Soil carbon content remains stable in some agricultural soils in Scotland: Research to measure  change in soil carbon (C) concentration, soil pH and major nutrients of 37 topsoils from a number of on-farm experimental sites that ran from the from 1950s to 1980s in north-east Scotland has indicated no significant change in soil C concentration, despite coinciding with increased agricultural intensification. The sites were resampled in the autumn of 2017 with an average of 54 years between sampling. However, measuring soil carbon concentration alone is a poor indicator of changes over time as demonstrated by the National Soil Inventory of Scotland resampling which showed a statistically significant decrease in C concentration, but no change in stocks when topsoil thickness and bulk density were also taken into account. Measures of concentration alone should only be used as an ‘early warning’ of potential change.
2018 / 2019
2018 / 2019

Sustainable soil management requires that we maintain the multiple functions of the soils. We have developed a series of maps, models and methods that allow us to investigate how soils will respond to pressures from land use and climate change from field to national scale while retaining those multiple functions such as water supply for growing crops, carbon storage and sequestration.  The maps can be used to examine how changes in land use, for example agricultural or forestry expansion, will alter the ability of the soil to perform a range of functions. In particular, these maps also allow an assessment of the probablility of the soil being able to provide a range of functions. National scale mapping of soil water availability provides key input data for running crop production models and parts of this work have been incorporated into the SoilMAT suite of simple models which can be used to investigate changes in soil properties such as carbon sequestration with land use or climate changes. We have identified costs and public preferences related to peatland restoration, a key aspect in climate change mitigation and modelled the long-term changes in soil functions of grasslands in response to changes in soil pH.

Highlights:

  • Soil carbon research: SEFARI scientists presented an overview of work on soil carbon sequestration in relation to land use at a workshop on UK Soil Organic Carbon Data and Modelling at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Lancaster. The aim of the workshop was to identify dataset to help in the development and validation of new models of soil carbon dynamics. Previous research on the potential for carbon storage in Scotland's agricultural soils was presented at Climate Week 2018 in Victoria Quay, Edinburgh and an article on the potential to pay farmers to sequester and store carbon in their soils and the beneficial effect of increasing soil carbon on water retention, on increased resilience to erosion and on soil biodiversity was published in the Scotsman on World Soil Day (5th December).  
  • Policy interaction: Using digital mapping resources for soil hydrological data (developed in the SRP through interaction with CREW and Underpinning Capacity), SEFARI researchers were able to provide evidence to the Scottish Government (Climate Change and Business Support) in support of a derogation request to the European Commission. The evidence on the impact of the wet 2018 spring on soil wetness, and the potential damage that would result from farmers being forced to cultivate saturated soils to comply with Crop Diversification regulations under the EU CAP Greening, was used to support a successful application to the European Commission that prevented thousands of farmers across Scotland facing penalties for breaching an EU regulation.
  • Knowledge accounts: Information generated (publications and reports) by SEFARI researchers on economic and social aspects of peatland restoration options contributed to Scottish government-produced knowledge accounts of Scotland’s natural assets. This information highlighting the importance of peatlands in the provision of ecosystem services and the potential risks and knowledge gaps in relation to public and land-manager acceptance of potential peatland restoration options. This information was also used in an application for funding to investigate barriers to uptake of peatland restoration management, led by the Soil Association.
2017 / 2018
2017 / 2018

Reliable spatially explicit information about soil is important for modelling soil functions and the benefits these bring to society. Digital soil mapping techniques were used to derive estimates of soil physical, chemical and hydrological properties that were then used to produce national scale maps of a range of soil functions and threats to the soil resource. These included risk and function models to estimate compaction, erosion risk, greenhouse gas (GHG), water and nutrient regulation. The maps and datasets can be used to explore scenarios of land use and climate change as well as providing a framework for sustainably managing the soil resource. The integration of spectroscopic and remote sensing (satellite) data is being explored to assess the condition of Scottish peatlands and supports the work to enhance  understanding  of restoration  costs  and  their  variation  across  measures,  peatland  condition,  and  location  of restoration sites.  

Highlights:

  • Valuing peatland restoration benefits: A paper has been published that shows that environmental attitudes and a sense of place positively contributes to the monetary value that people attach to peatland restoration.  Further qualitative work on the role of people (sense of care, responsibility and connection) in relation to perceptions of rewilding of peatlands has been highlighted at a number of conferences. The work has shown that peatland restoration is likely to generate net benefits for society which will help in persuading land managers the value of peatland restoration. Quantitative work, in collaboration with Leeds University, has summarised existing evidence on cost-effectiveness of peat restoration options, and produced recommendations for future collection and analysis of economic data (Report). Key findings and recommendations from both qualitative and quantitative work have been presented to the National Peatland Group.
  • Raising the global profile of SEFARI soils work: Major contributions were made to the international Pedometrics conference (which was attended by over 200 delegates from across the world) by SEFARI staff through oral and poster presentations, running training workshops, and giving keynote talks. Two papers based on previous RESAS funded work were selected for a special virtual journal 25th anniversary issue.
  • Digital tools:  SoilMAT is a simple summary process-based model, which has been initially developed in MS Excel. The model has modules to predict soil texture, carbon storage and water supply to describe the impact of changes in temperature and rainfall on crop production and to determine fertiliser use, nutrient limitation, nitrate leaching and greenhouse gas emissions in Scottish soilMeetings with stakeholders help to ensure an alignment between land use scenarios of importance to them and SoilMat development. Evaluation and validation of the modules will take place over the coming years. (EGU2018-12925 | Presentation).
  • Soils Risk Maps: A series of risk maps for much of the cultivated land in Scotland have been developed to help farmers identify areas vulnerable to erosion, compaction, leaching and runoff. These maps integrate work funded by CREW, Underpinning Capacity and the SRP, and are aimed at improving water quality by reducing diffuse pollution from land-based activities. SEPA, Scottish Water and SNH have asked to be provided with these maps and they will also be accessible via Scotland’s Soils website for use by land managers.
2016 / 2017
2016 / 2017

Having reliable spatially explicit information about soil is important to modelling a wide range of soil functions and their response to external pressures. Soil texture is specifically important as it influences several key properties and processes. A 3D model of soil texture has been produced using digital soil mapping techniques.  The results can be used as input for further soil functions modelling in the context of ecosystem services provision.

We have also developed a framework to model changes in soil processes due to changes in soil pH. The addition of lime to agricultural soils to improve crop growth also impacts on other soil functions and processes. We have reviewed a range of soil models used to predict these changes that will be used in subsequent years to envaluate the impact of changing pH on soil functions.

Scotland’s peat soils are seen as a significant carbon store but, to date, there has been a lack of systematic Scotland-wide data on peat depths. A review of litrature was undertaken in order to derive a dataset of peat depths that can be used to quantify carbon stocks in Scottish soils.

Highlights:

  • A new soils website is now operational where there is a wide range of soil information and where various datasets can be downloaded making Scottish soils data much more accessible.
  • The Soil Monitoring Action Plan (SoilMAP) has underpinned new activities in monitoring soil erosion through engagement with Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), Scottish Water, CREW and through citizen science. The data gained will inform the risk-based modelling of soil erosion.
  • A web-based Peatland Condition Assessment support tool and a Peatland Learning Module have been developed in collaboration with Leeds University.
  • A paper on public perceptions of peatlands was published, based on a focus group study. The main finding was that often the same people have ambivalent views of peatland as both good and bad, similar to nature/wildernesses and cultural landscapes under human management. Understanding of what people value and see as important needs to be taken into account in communication and planning.
  • 48 tweets were made over a 24-hour period to mark World Soil Day (5th Dec 2016) reaching nearly 6000 followers.

 

Future Activities

Modelling and mapping soil hydrological properties such as Soil Wetness Class is important for land evaluation, assessments of ecosystem services, soil functions, modelling catchment typologies and assessing threats to soil. The original, underpinning climate data used to derive Soil Wetness Class is based on 1941-70 climate observations and will be updated using more recent (1981-2010) rainfall.

Assessing how digital soil maps (DSM) produced by machine learning algorithms compares to traditional soil mapping and risk assessment is important in giving confidence to users of any new DSM products. The erosion risk maps will be used as an exemplar for the evaluation of DSM output.

While the soil erosion risk maps are useful to show the areas vulnerable to erosion, they cannot easily evaluate where the risk can be reduced though changes in management. To do this, we will continue to develop a tool based on a Bayesian Belief Network (BBN).

To date, proximal sensing techniques such as FTIR and XRF have developed calibrations to predict soil properties using dried, milled soil samples but, in order to move towards methods which are useable in the field to monitor change, calibrations need to be based on soils in moist, field conditions. We will use existing, moist soil samples to develop such calibrations. XRF techniques may also be sensitive to the effects of organic matter and this will be assessed on a range of soil.

We will provide a descriptive analysis of the costs and the factors that may influence cost variation across peatland restoration sites.  While restoring peatlands is a key aspect of sustainable land use, there are other areas of socioeconomic soil management research which are recognised by stakeholders as of high importance but are data-poor. We will formulate this into a list of the highest priority research questions, targeted to policy to ensure that these are addressed.

As a way to engage with citizens and to obtain information on the nature and extent of soil erosion in Scotland and validate risk maps and BBN, we will develop a mobile phone Erosion App whereby users can submit photographs and basic information on observed soil erosion.

Selected Outputs

2016/17

2017/18

2018/19

2019/20