Soils are vitally important.  The thin layer of soil covering the earth's surface is the difference between survival and extinction for most terrestrial life.

A new report, published this week by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), calls for a radical rethink of farming practices and soil management in order to help regenerate the soils that underpin our supply of food and environment [1]. It sets out practical ways to restore soil and new approaches to policies on soil.

Soil provides many benefits to the health of humans as well as our landscapes and wider environment. It is not only fundamental to the production of food, but it also filters and stores excess water in the ground and absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making it critical in the fight against climate change.

In the report CPRE points out that a combination of industrial farming practices, poor land management and damage from development have created a perfect storm that has resulted in dangerous levels of soil erosion, compaction and a loss of soil’s fertility; this degradation of soil costs around £1.2 billion a year, in England and Wales alone.

Kate Willshaw, Policy Officer at Friends of the Lake District (who represent CPRE in Cumbria) said:

“In Cumbria, our soils are particularly at risk from erosion by heavy rainfall, flooding, inappropriate use and overgrazing.  Cumbria’s soils are often very thin and only protected by sparse vegetation. Due to the steep slopes of the fells and mountains, once erosion gets a toehold, huge scars due to erosion of soil can occur within a matter of hours.  Once soil is lost from the fells, it can take more than 100 years form 1cm of topsoil.”

“After Storm Desmond, in December 2015, the loss of soil from the fells and destruction of valley bottom farmland by deposition of boulders, rubble and sand was at a scale previously unseen in our current lifetimes.  Cumbria’s fells need to be made more resilient against flood damage and rainfall erosion.  Because of this damage to our fragile landscape, it is urgent that land management practices are updated to cope with the increasing number of severe weather events we are suffering due to climate change.”

Image above: Meadow next to Ullswater unusable as pasture, covered in soil eroded from higher slopes after Storm Desmond December 2015.

Friends of the Lake District supports CPRE’s calls for the government to:

  • Make protection of all soils from degradation a headline goal of the 25 Year Environment Plan and develop an action plan to achieve their sustainable management by 2030
  • Establish a new goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 2050
  • Design investment and regulation to halt soil degradation and promote measures which protect and regenerate soils
  • Commit to developing metrics and monitoring needed to underpin sustainable soil management
  • Revise the National Planning Policy Framework and national planning guidance to recognise land and soils for the role they play, and to minimise degradation.

Read CPRE's report Back to the land: Rethinking our approach to soil here

More about CPRE's Save Our Soils campaign here

Read more about flooding and soils from a Cumbrian perspective here

Image: Bridge near Ullswater destroyed by boulders and debris released downstream by upland soil loss caused by flooding December 2015.