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Neglecting Our Soil May Be The Root Cause Of Many Environmental Problems

One of the country’s top soil scientists has warned that despite their generally good condition, Scotland’s soils are coming under increasing threat from a range of human activities - which may soon impair our ability to maintain a clean drinking water supply, support our important wildlife habitats and even grow our own food.

Dr Colin Campbell, Head of Soil Research at Aberdeen’s Macaulay Institute, said: “Healthy soils form the basis of our agriculture and forestry but also ultimately our water and tourist industries – so good soil health is vital not just for our population’s health, but also for the country’s economic well-being.

However, the nation’s soils –which are very different in nature from those found in the rest of the UK - are increasingly subject to a variety of man-made threats, including climate change, increasing new building developments, and pollution.

“We mustn’t forget that the whisky, beautiful landscapes and wildlife that Scotland is famous for all depend on healthy soil. Even our future weather may depend on how well we look after our soils. Scotland’s soils provide many seen and unseen services, and we must take care of this vital resource.

“In fact, there are very few aspects of our daily lives that aren’t dependent on our soils and it is imperative we look after them – because once soil is gone, it is effectively gone forever,” he added.

Dr Campbell provided this stark reminder ahead of the Institute’s appearance at Edinburgh’s Royal Highland Show this week, where their exhibit will focus on the nation’s soil health.

He said that in some areas such as the Moray Firth lowlands the growing of certain crops and the regulation of water quality could soon become seriously compromised - unless we act soon.

One of the major threats to soil - climate change – is expected to have multiple effects. Higher temperatures will lead to the loss of important organic matter and alter the sort of crops grown, whereas the predicted increased rainfall is likely to lead to greater soil erosion. Wetter, warmer soils could also release more of the greenhouse gases they contain, thereby further contributing to climate change.

A recent report on the State of Scotland’s Soils was carried out by the Macaulay Institute - in collaboration with Stirling University - for the Scottish Executive, who has already moved to act on some of the findings. The Executive recently announced the establishment of a soil monitoring system and have already started the process of compiling a Scottish soil strategy in response to the review.

The report ‘Scotland’s Soil Resource – Current State and Threats’ critically assesses for the first time the current evidence on soils, and also makes a number of recommendations on how to preserve them.

Dr Campbell said: “Scotland’s soils are an essential part of our rural fabric and cultural heritage, and apart from its people, it could be argued that they are our greatest national asset.”

One of the other main threats to soils comes from building pressure. An area of soil equivalent in size to Dunfermline is lost permanently every year through new building developments.

Dr Campbell continues: “Much of this is likely to have been prime agricultural land, and, as we live in uncertain times with regard to the global climate and food security issues, questions must be asked regarding the long term sustainability of this trend.”

The area of agricultural land lost per annum could potentially produce approximately 9000 tonnes of wheat, or almost 14 million loaves of bread.

The main pollution threats according to the report come from acid rain in the uplands, and from the heavy metals within organic wastes where it is applied on lowland agricultural areas.

“Not many people realise that soils are alive – but in fact there are more living things in a teaspoon full of soil than there are people on the planet. And as with all living things, soils can become unwell and even die if not cared for properly,” warned Dr Campbell.

The Macaulay Institute will be highlighting the importance of soil health at its stand in the SAC marquee at the Royal Highland Show. Weekend visitors to the show will be also able to meet the ‘Dirt Doctors’ as they assess the health of the nations soils. They will also be able to see soil breathing, play ‘The Drain Game’ and enter a prize draw for a chance to get their garden soil tested for free by the Institute.

The Macaulay Institute is the premier land use research institute in the UK. Two hundred and seventy staff are based at the Macaulay Institute at Craigiebuckler in Aberdeen. The Macaulay Institute aims to be an international leader in research on the use of rural land resources for the benefit of people and the environment and is involved in research across the globe; from Scotland to Chile and China. More about the Macaulay Institute can be found at

Dave Stevens | alfa
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