Could Pioneering Vet’s TB Test End the Slaughter?

As badger culls begin, could one pioneering vet’s bovine TB test end the slaughter?

Patrick Barkham.   The Observer.  Sun 15 Oct 2017.

Research at a secret location in Devon may help eradicate bovine tuberculosis without a single badger being killed, says leading vet

A pretty stone farmhouse sits in a bucolic green valley, surrounded by airy cowsheds. It looks like a timeless West Country scene but is actually a pioneering farm, where cutting-edge science is helping to solve the hugely controversial, multimillion-pound problem of bovine tuberculosis (bTB).

As an expanded badger cull gets under way this autumn, in which 33,500 animals will be killed to help stop the spread of the disease, a leading vet, Dick Sibley, believes this Devon farm demonstrates a way to eradicate the disease in cattle – without slaughtering any badgers.

Sibley’s trial, at a secret location, was halted earlier this year when two new tests to better identify bTB in cattle were deemed illegal. But government regulators have now given the vet permission to continue. His work is backed by rock star-turned-activist Brian May, whose Save Me Trust last week began a four-year programme of vaccinating badgers at the farm against bTB.

The family that owns the farm, which has 300 milking cows, turned to Sibley in despair after being virtually shut down with bTB for five years. Because of the disease, their cattle cannot be sold on the open market.

“We had nothing to lose,” said the fourth-generation farmer, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of interference from extremists on both sides of the argument. “We want to get rid of TB, it’s costing us a lot. Any technology would be better than the old bTB test.”

Despite four years of badger culling, bTB continues to rise in England, and 30,980 cows were slaughtered in the year up to June in attempts to control it, an increase of 4%. Farmers, as well as wildlife campaigners, are increasingly critical of the cattle test for bTB, which misses many cases, leaving undiagnosed cows to spread the disease within herds. In 2015, 16% of English bTB “breakdowns” were only detected in abattoirs, after supposedly healthy cows had been slaughtered.

Sibley is pioneering two new tests. The phage test, developed by microbiologist Cath Rees of Nottingham University, uses a bTB-invading virus to “hunt” for the live bacterium. It is detecting bTB in cows on the Devon farm months before they test positive with the traditional “skin test”: 85 cows have tested positive with the phage test despite all being found disease-free by the conventional test.

Farmers then need to know if infected cows are infectious. For this, Sibley uses a second test, qPCR, developed by Liz Wellington, life sciences professor at Warwick University. It detects bTB in dung, showing if a cow is “shedding” – spreading – the disease. If it is, the cow is slaughtered even though the conventional test suggests it is healthy.

Both professors have given Sibley free use of their new technologies, and the tests have shown that supposedly healthy cows are the “hidden reservoir” of bTB on the farm. But Sibley said what farms need as well as better testing is better risk management and more resilient cows. “I’ve never cured a cow with a test,” he said.

The farm is an intensive dairy operation that keeps its cattle indoors once they are fully grown and milks them robotically – some cows produce 15,000 litres of milk each year. “If you don’t give that cow everything she needs, and keep the disease away from her, she will crash and burn,” said Sibley. “It’s just like athletes: if there’s a bit of E coli in the Olympic village, they all go down.”

TB – in cows as well as humans – is traditionally a disease of bad living conditions, so the farm’s barns are airy. There are fewer cows in each barn compared with a typical dairy farm, walkways are cleaned three times a day, and regularly changed drinking water is held in “tipping troughs” that are kept scrubbed clean. Dung falling into troughs is likely to be a key transmitter of the disease.

After studying each cow’s history, Sibley believes mothers often spread the disease to their calves at birth. The farm is combatting this by building a new maternity unit with rubber floors that will be disinfected after every delivery. Colostrum – the crucial first milk that boosts a calf’s immune system – is harvested from each mother but pasteurised before it is fed to each calf, so it won’t spread disease.

Leading vet Dick Sibley is trialling new testing methods for bTB that will detect the disease much earlier in cattle. Photograph: Jim Wileman for the Observer

After being “shut down” for five years, the farm had its first clear test last year. It hopes to be clear of all restrictions within 12 months. But Sibley says that removing the disease from cows without tackling diseased badgers is like “crossing the road and only looking one way”.

Farm CCTV reveals that no badgers come close to the cattle sheds, but Wellington’s qPCR technology tested badger latrines and found local badgers were shedding the disease: 30% of 273 faecal samples contained the bacterium. Young grazing cows are potentially exposed to the disease.

“We have to accept that the badgers are a risk,” said Sibley. “We either kill them, fence them out or, more constructively, vaccinate them to reduce the risk of infection in the environment.”

May’s ‘Save Me Trust’ is funding badger vaccination around the farm. The Queen guitarist became a hate-figure for some farmers when he suggested that if bTB was such a problem they should stop rearing cattle. But he has been working behind the scenes for several years to support farmers.

“I’m very, very hopeful that Dick Sibley has the answer,” said May. “I hope it works out, not just for this farm but for the whole of Britain. That would take away this awful polarisation between farmers and the public and animal welfare groups.”

A global shortage of BCG vaccine stopped May vaccinating badgers last year and he points out that the farm has virtually banished the disease without touching a single badger. “If badgers are running around with bTB and the herd has been cleaned up with advanced testing, that really makes you wonder whether badgers are contributing to the disease,” said May.

While some epidemiologists have privately expressed frustration that the government has not yet adopted new cattle-testing technologies, Sibley said the regulators move slowly. “The authorities must have rock-solid evidence in case they end up in court. I predict that in five years time phage and qPCR will be in the toolbox for farmers.”

Other bTB-hit farms are interested in Sibley’s approach and May’s charity has pledged to help meet veterinary costs. In Wales, farms with chronic bTB are receiving special support from the Welsh government and could be among the first to adopt the new techniques. Christianne Glossop, Wales’ chief vet, said: “I have known Dick for many years and have great respect for his work. I am also well aware of his current trials and will be keeping a close eye on the results of his pilot in Devon exploring innovative new testing methods.”

The Devon farmer admits he has been surprised by his success. “This test is showing the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m excited that it could help us get clear of the disease and help other farmers in the future.”


A zoonotic disease – one that can jump from animals to humans – bovine tuberculosis (bTB) caused thousands of human deaths until the pasteurisation of milk began in the 1920s. It was then almost eradicated from British cows with the widespread slaughter of herds in the 1950s.

However, in 1971 it was discovered that cows had passed the disease to badgers after a dead badger was found on a farm in Gloucestershire. The find led to five decades of debate and scientific uncertainty, and it is still not known what proportion – if any – of cattle TB cases are caused by badgers. The scientific consensus is that cows and badgers pass the disease between them but the precise method of transmission is also not known. Epidemiologists believe it is most likely via animal faeces.

Cattle TB has risen steadily since the 1980s and cost £500m in compensation to farmers in the decade up to 2013. That year, badger culling began in two “zones” in Gloucestershire and Somerset. It has since expanded to 21 zones in England. Ireland, the only other country with a bTB problem, also culls badgers.

Pro-cull farmers argue that reducing badger numbers will reduce bTB in the environment. No data has been published on the impact of four years of badger culling on cattle TB, but many scientists question the cull’s effectiveness.

What Are Swifts Up To After They Leave Us?


BBC Radio 4’s ‘Inside Science’ last night was interesting.  Amongst other things, it had a piece about work that Lund University in Sweden is doing on the life of swifts.  They have put some tiny data loggers on some birds and then retrieve them when the birds return to nest the following spring.  They have brought to light new information about the birds flying time and their whereabouts in their African winter quarters.  Do listen!

Mysterious Life of the Swift

27th October 2016.

Swifts stay airborne for 10 months straight!  Common swift now the longest continually-flying bird, spending at least 99.5 per cent of their 14,000-mile migration in the air.


Common swifts have one of the longest migrations in the world, travelling some 14,000 miles every year from the UK to spend their winter in Africa. Whilst this in itself is astounding, new research from the University of Lund has now revealed that incredibly, they spend a whole 10 months in the air without landing. This poses new questions; how do they maintain their energy during this time? How do they sleep?

Flying high.

By attaching microdata loggers to 13 birds, the researchers were able to track their movements over a long period of time. For some birds this was up to two years of travel, during which the loggers sent back data about location, acceleration, and whether they were airborne or not. The results, published in the journal Current Biology, found that some birds were able to continue flying for 10 months, while those that landed for short periods still spent 99.5 per cent of their ten-month migration in the air.

“This discovery significantly pushes the boundaries for what we know about animal physiology,” says Professor Anders Hedenström from the Department of Biology at Lund. “A ten-month flight phase is the longest we know of any bird species – it’s a record.”

Interestingly, the birds that never landed moulted and gained new flight feathers in the wings and tail, but those that landed didn’t. Researchers speculate that this could indicate small differences in body condition, or burden of parasites. Furthermore, the research also showed that the birds’ flight activity was lower during the day than at night, likely a result of the birds saving energy gliding on warm, upward air currents during the day, explains Hedenström.

Sleeping on the job.

However, the researchers remain unsure on how the birds sleep during this time.

“They might do as the frigate bird and sleep while gliding. Every day, at dusk and dawn, the common swift rises up to an altitude of about two-three kilometres. Perhaps they sleep during a declining glide, but we’re not sure.”

Given the accumulated flight distance is equal to that of seven round-trips to the Moon, and swifts have been known to live up 20 years old, it is unsurprising Hedenström and his colleagues hope to explore this field in future research, with many more fascinating questions to ask and answer about the birds’ physiology.

Parrotfeather – An Invasive Water Plant

Yesterday, I stopped off to view West Dean Brooks, situated in the Cuckmere Valley near Seaford, part of the Seaford to Beachy Head SSSI… I was alarmed by the amount of Parrotfeather growing in the roadside ditch.  I recall that some 20 years ago, when part of my remit was a management input into this area, I would occasionally stop-off and carefully hand rake out, the small quantity then growing.  Routine mechanical weed clearance by the EA over the years has very likely spread this weed along the main feeder ditch.

weed_parfeather2_gm parrot image

No ecological benefits are associated with Parrotfeather ( Myriophyllum aquaticum), it being an introduced specie native to the Amazon in South America. It prefers a warm mild climate although it can survive temperate winters.  Parrotfeather grows best in still waters such as lakes, ponds, quiet streams and drainage ditches and is also able to survive in rivers. Vegetative reproduction is the only likely dispersal agent because female plants are not found in the UK.  Fragments can be carried by water birds and floodwaters from one location to another.

Parrotfeather readily takes over lakes, ponds and streams outcompeting native plants. It is an especially problematic plant because it is so difficult to control.  Once it enters into a water body, it takes a considerable and costly effort to eliminate it.

Parrotfeather provides an ideal habitat for mosquito larvae and the mass of the plant can increase the likelihood of flooding occurring. It may also block passage for fish species when they navigate up watercourses to spawn.  In addition, it can cause pH and other water quality issues in still water areas.  The tough stems make it difficult to boat, swim or fish.

While Parrotfeather may provide cover for some aquatic organisms, it can seriously change the physical and chemical characteristics of lakes and streams. Infestations can alter aquatic ecosystems by shading out the algae in the water column that serve as the basis of the aquatic food web.

Treatment Options.

Various herbicides are produced which can be applied to aquatic habitats but they are indiscriminate with regard to native plant species, are of course poisons and chemical treatment is expensive and would probably require several applications.

Physical Removal Options.

Mechanical cutting, nets and rakes can be used to control Parrotfeather BUT without great care, fragmentation is very likely to cause further dispersal as even tiny fragments can re-grow.  Therefore, mechanical control is not recommended unless the waterbody in question is significantly infested.  Cleaning and inspection of machinery and tools before being transported on to another aquatic site is recommended.

Plant Description.

Parrotfeather is an herbaceous aquatic plant that grows to a length of 6.5 to 16 feet. Its stems are greenish blue with numerous small leaves that resemble feathers. The leaves are either submersed or emergent and grow in whorls of 4 to 6 around the stem. This species is easily confused with the native water milfoils but those don’t have above water leaves.

Look for:

  • Bright green fir-tree-like; emergent leaves and stems
  • Leaflets arranged in whorls (4-6) around the stem
  • Leaflets with feather-like leaf arrangement
  • Dense mat of intertwined brownish stems (rhizomes) in the water
  • Reddish, feathery-leaved, limp, underwater leaves may be present

I’ve often wondered about whether using such soaps was a good idea…

Mounting evidence suggests antibacterial soaps do more harm than good.


While the use of antibacterial soap is beneficial in certain situations, for everyday use, they can end up doing more harm than good. That’s the message from a growing number of studies casting doubt on the safety of these microbe-killing soaps, and now the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is demanding more data from the makers of antibacterial soap so it can make a final ruling.

These bacteria-killing soaps have been under close scrutiny for several years now, and have been banned in certain parts of the US. Some researchers believe their use is contributing to the rise of ‘superbugs’ – in other words, chemicals in antibacterial products are causing the bugs to mutate and become more resistant.

Add to this the evidence that antibacterial soap doesn’t actually clean your hands any better than normal soap and warm water – at least not if you’re only cleaning your hands for a couple of minutes at a time – and you can see why experts are saying it’s causing more harm than good.

A study presented earlier this month to the US Endocrine Society found that mother rats exposed to triclocarban – a chemical most commonly found in antimicrobial bar soaps – was passed onto their offspring. It was also altering the microbiomes of both mothers and babies, which is a worry, because we’re learning more and more about how crucial our internal bacteria are for our health.

Also under suspicion is triclosan, another antimicrobial widely used in hand soaps and many other products, from shampoos to cosmetics. A 2014 study found exposure to triclosan could make both humans and rats more susceptible to a potentially infectious type of bacteria called Staphylococcus.

More recent research has found triclosan affecting the microbiomes, diversity, and community structure of zebrafish.

If that wasn’t enough bad news for antibacterial soaps, other studies are looking at their impact on the wider environment.

Two recent studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin found that both triclosan and triclocarban interfered with microbial communities that break down sewage, reducing their effectiveness, and encouraged bacteria to become more resistant to drugs.

The FDA is expected to make a decision in September about whether these antimicrobials should be banned from all soap products. While they’re technically safe, they might not be doing us or the environment around us much good. In the meantime, you could consider replacing the antibacterial handwash you keep in the kitchen or bathroom with just plain, old soap.

“We want to slow the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria so that our current antibiotics can continue to help medical patients,” said one of the team from Marquette University, Dan Carey. “If using hand soap without antimicrobials can help, I think it would be worth it to try and change consumer behaviour.”

More Evidence of Atmospheric Pollution Containing Nitrogen Compounds

Another piece confirming piece evidence of atmospheric pollution containing nitrogen compounds.  In this paper, ammonium nitrate is highlighted, in other words fertilizer.  This diffuse pollutant rains down across the entire landscape.  Natural habitats in the main, require nutrient-poor soils, not fertilizer!  No wonder we are struggling to conserve a number of different habitat types such as chalk grassland and lowland heathland…


How important is the ‘foreign’ contribution to UK particulate matter pollution?

Submitted by Dr. Massimo Vieno on Fri, 01/04/2016.

In two new papers published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (ACP) and Environmental Research Letters (ERL), we highlight how UK domestic fine particulate matter pollution is influenced by long-range transport of secondary aerosols originating from continental Europe. Both papers make use of CEH-led [Centre for Ecology & Hydrology] research into the development and application of advanced atmospheric chemistry transport models such as EMEP4UK.

Reducing PM2.5 concentrations.

In the ACP article, we investigate which policy actions to reduce the UK ambient concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) would be the most effective. This work has also contributed to the 2015 report of the UK Air Quality Expert Group (AQEG), an Expert Committee which provides independent scientific advice on air quality to Defra. The article concludes that the UK ambient concentrations of PM2.5 can only be controlled by domestic emission reductions to a limited extent. For a present year, the model results showed that either reducing primary particulate matter emissions, or ammonia emissions, reduced PM2.5 concentrations in the UK by a similar amount. For the future we expect atmospheric composition to change, and as a consequence the model results suggest that in 2030, reducing emissions of primary PM2.5 would be more effective.

Air pollution episode of March–April 2014.

The article in ERL focused on a specific episode of very high concentrations of fine particulate matter over the UK (and most parts of Western Europe), which occurred in the spring of 2014. While the event was widely referred to be caused by ‘Saharan Dust’, the model analysis presented by Dr Vieno and his colleagues illustrate the complexity of such events. The paper provides compelling evidence from both model simulations and the analysis of detailed particulate species monitoring data from two of the UK EMEP1 ‘Supersites’, pinpointing the main contribution to this event as secondary inorganic aerosols (SIA) and specifically ammonium nitrate.

The findings presented in both articles are of particular relevance for policy makers, as they highlight the important role of international collaboration in tackling transboundary air pollution problems. We suggest that modelling studies on national and regional scale, such as these, are very important as they provide quantitative evidence for the design of future emission control policies, which need to take transboundary transport of pollutants and precursors into account.

Dr Massimo Vieno is the lead developer of the EMEP4UK model and Dr Stefan Reis leads the Modelling & Integrated Assessment group. They work for the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

Dog Owners Warned About New Tick Disease

Dog owners warned about new tick disease.

By Claire Marshall, BBC Environment Correspondent

16 March 2016

Dog owners in the UK are being warned about an outbreak of an animal disease that is carried by ticks. It is the first time that experts have established an outbreak of babesiosis in the country.

In Essex, two dogs have died and three others needed blood transfusions after contracting the disease. Experts say that it will be impossible to stop the spread of the disease, which is caused by a single-celled parasite. The ticks carrying the Babesia canis parasite have been found in fields in Harlow, Essex. The local council has put up a sign with a map defining the area and advising dog walkers not to enter.

Two government agencies are now investigating the outbreak: the Animal and Plant Health Agency and Public Health England.

Clive Swainsbury is a vet at the Forest Veterinary Centre in Harlow. He has been treating some of infected dogs, including the one that died.

“The parasite enters the bloodstream, enters the cells, and in the process of trying to kill the parasite the dog will actually destroy its own blood cells. So they become very anaemic.”

The expectation is that it will spread throughout the country. “At present we have a very well defined area. The problem in the future is that every female tick will lay a couple of thousand eggs and all those offspring from that disease will also carry the disease. As mammals move around they will start spreading the disease. Although you can advise dog walkers not to go there, it’s possible that foxes and other animals will transport these ticks.”

The symptoms of babesiosis within dogs include weakness, lethargy, pale gums, red urine and fever. A serious problem is that Babesia can be mistaken for other less dangerous diseases.

“It’s easy to miss it. And because it’s a new disease to this country, we as a profession aren’t used to looking for this disease on a regular basis.”

The tick acts as a vector. In the same way that a mosquito transmits malaria by sucking the blood from a person, the tick does the same to an animal. It also sucks blood and in the process of feeding the disease will transmit from the tick to the dog. It’s not contagious between dogs themselves.

The Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association estimates that there are more than nine million dogs in the UK – almost a quarter of households.

It’s dogs that spend a lot of time outdoors, especially in rough and wooded areas, that are most at risk.

“The only solution is to kill the ticks quickly,” says Mr Swainsbury. “Some of the tick products available will kill the tick quick enough to prevent the tick spreading the disease to the dog, because the tick needs to be feeding for 24 hours at least before it transmits the disease. But not all tick products do that and you need to seek advice from your vet.”

The tick found in the UK carrying the Babesia canis strain is called Dermacentor reticulatus.

Prof Richard Wall is professor of zoology at the University of Bristol. He is helping to conduct the largest every veterinary study of ticks and tick-borne diseases, called the Big Tick Project.

“People who work on ticks and tick-borne diseases are concerned about this outbreak. It could be the tip of the iceberg. If it spreads quickly throughout the UK then it is going to be a very significant problem, but we don’t have enough info at this stage to make a prediction about how quickly this will happen. It’s highly unlikely that the problem will now disappear, we have the vectors, we have the pathogens established in the UK.”

TV naturalist Chris Packham says: “The population of ticks is getting bigger year on, year on. That’s because there is better over winter survival of the adults – it’s warm and mild through our winters and that means they can breed more quickly in the spring and there are a lot more of them. These animals are very good at what they do, and they need to find hosts to suck its blood to reproduce, and they do it brilliantly. So if you walk in an area where there are ticks, with a dog, they will get on to your dog.”

There are several species of Babesia and some of them affect humans. In parts of the world including the United States, human babesiosis is transmitted by the same tick that carries Lyme Disease, caused by Borrelia bacteria.

“The first thing that dog owners can do to protect their animals is to be aware of the problem. Your dog could become very seriously ill or die, and if you get Lyme disease then the same could be the case for you.”


Nicotine and Other Natural Chemicals Protect Bees from Parasites.

Nicotine and Other Natural Chemicals Protect Bees from Parasites.

September 2, 2015 by Entomology Today.

Bumble bees infected with a common intestinal parasite are drawn to flowers whose nectar and pollen have a medicinal effect, a new study shows. The findings, soon to be published in the journal Ecology, suggest that plant chemistry could help combat the decline of bee species.

The researchers previously found in lab studies that nectar containing nicotine and other natural chemicals in plants significantly reduced the number of parasites in sickened bees, but the new study shows parasitized bees already are taking advantage of natural chemicals in the wild.

Parasites are a common natural cause of disease in bumble bees and honey bees, both of which play a vital role in agriculture and plant pollination. The intestinal parasite the researchers looked at can strongly affect their survival, reproduction, and foraging behavior.

The researchers studied the effects of a group of plant secondary metabolites found naturally in floral nectar — iridoid glycosides — on bumble bee foraging and plant reproduction. Iridoid glycosides can deter deer and other herbivores, but the researchers’ earlier studies showed the compounds have a medicinal effect on parasitized bees by reducing their parasite load.

In the new study, the researchers looked at concentrations of two iridoid glycoside compounds, aucubin and catalpol, in nectar and pollen in four populations of turtlehead, a bee-pollinated wetland plant found throughout eastern North America. They then manipulated concentrations of the chemicals in those flowers to study their effects on bee foraging.

The results showed that relative to healthy bees, those infected with the intestinal parasite greatly preferred visiting flowers with the highest iridoid glycoside concentrations. Bees attacked by a second antagonist, a parasitoid fly, did not respond in this way to nectar chemistry. The researchers also found that flowers with the highest concentrations of nectar iridoid glycosides donated significantly more pollen to other flowers following bee visits, showing that nectar chemistry can affect plant reproductive success.

“Secondary metabolites are commonly present in floral nectar and pollen, yet their functions are not well understood,” said lead author Leif Richardson, a former Dartmouth graduate student now at the University of Vermont. “In this study, we show that these compounds could influence plant reproduction via complex suites of interactions involving not only pollinators but also their natural enemies.”

Senior author Rebecca Irwin, a former Dartmouth faculty member now at North Carolina State University, said, “We show that bees might be able to self-medicate, altering their foraging behavior when parasitized so as to maximize their consumption of beneficial plant secondary metabolite compounds.”


EU Becoming Interested in Rewilding.

EU Becoming Interested in Rewilding.

By Tim Sandle.     Oct 1, 2015 in Environment .

Rewilding is a process of environmental management focused on restoring natural ecological processes and reducing human influence on landscapes. A call has been made to spread the process more widely.

The argument for “rewilding” is that the process could be used to restore the ever-expanding areas of abandoned agricultural land throughout Europe. So, instead of mud and rubble a more biodiverse wilderness is created. The call has been made by the European Commission, drawing on a new research study.

In terms of the land available for such a project it is extensive. Active cropland and other agricultural areas has decreased by approximately 19 percent in Europe between 1950 and 2010. Much of this land stands idle.

In setting out the case for returning this land to its natural state (“rewilding”) the European Commission states: “The benefits include reduced loss of money through subsidies, proliferation of diminished native species, reforestation, and the restoration of ecosystem services provided by wilderness.”

To show what might happen, a research group has constructed a series of predictive models. For this, researchers constructed a map showing the potential ‘wilderness quality’ of different regions. Wilderness quality is described as a measure of how readily different areas can be transformed to a more natural state. This is based on the following criteria:

*Artificial light at night;

*Human accessibility;

*Proportion of harvested primary productivity;

*Deviation from potential natural vegetation.

To be suitable, an area will need to have low levels for each of the measures. Data was collected using satellite images and collecting climate data. The study on which the case for rewilding is based has been published in the journal Conservation Biology. The title of the paper is “Mapping opportunities and challenges for rewilding in Europe.”

In related news, plans are being considered to re-introduce some lost species back into the British countryside and U.K waters. Among the species being considered are wolves, whales and lynxes.

Read more:

Soil Is Amazing Stuff – If We Allow It To Be!

[Found this intriguing reminder (containing some mind-blowing facts), of what mainly keeps us lot alive and we’re often walking on…],3ADFG,724ZFX,BRNXW,1

Soil is amazing stuff – if we allow it to be!

A really top quality arable soil is made up of, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, 25% air, 25% water, 45% minerals and around 5% organic matter, with the organic content potentially rising to around 10% when under permanent grassland and therefore not cultivated.

One single teaspoon full of healthy soil contains around 1 billion bacteria, meaning that a handful of soil has more living organisms within it than there are people living on planet Earth!

One of the primary purposes of soil bacteria lies in its role in decomposition, which is a vital process within the ecosystem, because nutrients trapped in plant or animal tissue are broken down and made available to other organisms. This process ensures the recycling of materials within the soil and for instance, plays an integral role in the nitrogen cycle. Organisms are unable to use nitrogen in its gaseous form, however bacteria in the soil will fix nitrogen from the air so that plants can use it.

Earthworms also play an important role by eating organic matter and breaking it down into smaller pieces allowing bacteria and also fungi to feed on it and release the nutrients. Charles Darwin referred to earthworms as ‘nature’s ploughs’ because of this mixing of soil and organic matter.

Talking of fungi, it is thought that over 30% of the sugars produced by the plant are released through the root system to feed the soil biology and maintain the ecosystem around the plant. The release of sugars forms the basis of a symbiotic relationship, as these sugars in the soil enable the microbial populations to multiply around the plant roots.

A fairly recent discovery is that Mycorrhizal fungi also produce a sticky substance known as glomalin, which has been referred to as “soil glue”. Combined with the fungal ropes, which are the strands produced by the fungi to absorb nutrients, this glue is responsible for building soil structure effectively binding minute soil particles together to create soil crumbs, which helps to prevent soil from slumping and eroding.

Now for a truly staggering statistic. The main body of most fungi is made up of fine, branching, and mainly colourless threads called hyphae. Each fungus will have vast numbers of these hyphae, all intertwining to make up a tangled web called the mycelium. In arable soils you might expect to find between 1 & 2 metres of these fungal threads in every gram of soil, which rises to a 100 metres or so in soils under permanent grassland. But wait for it, if you think that is amazing – the fungal threads in an ounce of soil taken from the forest floor can be as long as 40 miles in length!!

There is increasing evidence that the poor condition of many soils, which lack a thriving “biology” are contributing to a build-up of locked nutrients, with only 5-10% of all inputs ever reaching the plants they were intended to support. Add to this the removal of many crop protection inputs, and world phosphorus reserves coming under strain in the coming decades, those with an eye on the strategic nature of farming are once again looking at how to harness soil biology to unlock bound macro elements, increase nutrient availability and thus reduce artificial inputs on a commercial scale.

However, we must also make sure that our soils remain where they should be – in the field.

Government research is showing that through soil erosion we are losing 0.1 – 0.3t/ha of top soil annually and it is the most fertile soil which is lost first. This equates to an annual loss in the UK of 2.2 million tonnes of soil through erosion (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology). Oh, and by the way, it takes approximately 500 years to replace 1 inch of topsoil lost to erosion.

So, as the UN General Assembly has declared 2015 as the “International year of soils”, perhaps now is the time to start looking after our soils much better than we are currently, and indeed many farmers are now focussing on just this matter with some urgency.

I think that it might help if we can all begin to think of soil as a living and breathing organism – a habitat that is as packed with biodiversity as any top notch, designated nature reserve. Then we might tend it with more care.