Soil Degradation on Britain’s Farms.

ABSTRACT from an article in the October issue of the BRITISH WILDLIFE magazine:

Environmental manager and livestock farmer Dave Stanley has taken a critical look at Natural England’s recent evidence review of soil, and is worried. He suggests that the report is ‘complacent’ and ‘disingenuous’ as it fails to acknowledge or consider the impacts of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides on soil-loss and says that these are ‘prime factors’ in soil decline.  Furthermore, he underlines the fact that the report contains only ‘very limited reference to soil organic matter loss,’ a serious short-coming when we know that organic-matter loss on cropped land is severe.

He cites the Countryside Survey 2007 figures illustrating carbon losses of 20% in Wales 1978-2007 and 6% in England 1998-2007. Those of us involved in grassland creation on arable land, and others knowledgeable on agricultural soils, also see for ourselves that it is at 0% or near on much arable land in Britain.  This year, for example, I have recommended the importing of municipal green-waste compost to one site to be restored to grassland, just to inject some life into what looked like a biologically dead soil exhausted by repeated arable cropping.

Focusing on research, Dave also concludes that ‘the national resource of soil is pretty close to bottom of the list of the Government’s list of research priorities – if not actually just a token gesture.’ He points out that, as part of their cross-compliance for land in continuous tillage/arable, the Irish government requires that soil be sampled for carbon; remedial action must be taken when the soil organic carbon has dropped below 2%.  However, there are no plans to measure UK arable soil carbon.  Failure to measure and monitor also means that there is no impetus for good soil management nor for remedial measures to be implemented.

New cross-compliance standards for agriculture introduced this year include a requirement to ‘maintain the level of organic matter in soil.’ The very brief guidance, however, refers only to burning of stubble and crop residues on arable land.  Given the global initiative on food security, the government and farming industry need a serious wake-up call.  Dave not alone in believing that the industry, and government, are too focused on increasing output and developing export markets, while failing to take adequate measures to ensure that living soil, the resource on which food production depends, is protected and restored.


The following are some current good and poor examples of soil management that I have noticed recently in travels within my home county of East Sussex:

Good.                                                                                                                                                                    Miles Walton, of Alciston Court Farm, Alciston.  Minimal cultivation techniques, changed drilling (sowing) practices and the incorporation of sewage sludge to reduce inorganic fertilizer use.

Duncan Ellis, of Church Farm, Litlington. Minimal cultivation techniques and computer-aided fertilizer inputs.

Poor.                                                                                                                                                                   Near Berwick Station. Harvesting of maize crop that has not been under-sown, with excessive mud brought on road and the probability of silt being carried into nearby watercourse.                                                                             


Week Ending Saturday, October 24th.

Tues. What a cracking day – well at least weather wise!  We spent the morning in ‘hunt the missing Lullington ponies!’  I ended up walking from the SD Way above Jevington to just above Friston pumping station.  Eventually all seven appeared from out of Friston Forest half way along the gallops.  Once located, we drove them back – they knew towards the end of which, where home was and how to get there!

The local farm is having a major security drive at the moment with a number of vehicle barriers being erected on access points in the Litlington area. Joy riders have become apparently an almost nightly occurrence up on the Downs.  These pests had left both gates open where the ponies are and elsewhere, literally driven through some gates in the forest!

In the afternoon at Chailey, we managed to only gather 15 ponies for the night.

Weds. Come the morning, the ponies were still contained within the temporary fenced-off area.  Luckily, just outside of which, were standing the missing five ponies.  While I made the trip with the first load of ponies to Ashdown Forest, where I became temporarily stuck on the greasy clay created by the overnight rain and had to un-hitch and extract the trailer.  Meanwhile back at Chailey, the other five were coaxed in and eventually corralled.  By the end of the day, we had five ponies on site on the new grazing area on Ashdown Forest near Nutley, eight ponies on Red House Common and seven ponies awaiting to go to another new site just outside of Brighton.