Soils and Carbon

How we use our land

Soils and Carbon

Healthy soil with earthworms - Steve Trotter

Restoring our soils

We depend on soils for growing food. Soils lock-in carbon, help clean away chemicals, hold back floodwater and support an array of life forms. Land management and land use must protect and help our soils. 

Why are soils important?

The British Isles have taken 3 billion years to develop into their current form and include a greater diversity of rock and soil types than anywhere else on Earth of comparable size.  However, our soils are degraded. All around our shores soils are being eroded from the landscape and carried out to sea. This is having an impact on wildlife. Healthy soils are fundamental to insect life and natural fertility. Good soil health and effective management of soils is vital to our economic future. If we continue to degrade nature through damaging practices we will not be able to grow food or drink water.

Lapwing in soil on farm

Lapwing on farmland ©Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

What The Wildlife Trusts are doing

We advise farmers and landowners to help them to care for their soils. 

We look after 100,000 hectares of wildlife-rich sensitively-managed soils on our nature reserves.

We restore peatland soils, for example by blocking drains and rewetting areas of land. We are also calling for a ban on the use of peat in horticulture.

The Wildlife Trusts lobby for a range of measures which are necessary to help our soils recover, including setting a target of increasing organic matter in UK arable and horticultural soils by 20% over the next 20 years (1% a year) and put measures in place to achieve this.

  • Ploughing less often or stopping tillage altogether in some circumstances.
  • Replacing artificial fertilisers with natural organic matter.
  • Ensuring crop rotation, and planting catch cover crops.

Become a member

Support your local Wildlife Trust's work to preserve precious habitats near you

Find out more

Peter Cairns/2020VISION

Let's ask the Government for better protection of our wildlife and wild places

Help protect our natural world

Curlew ©Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Peatlands

Peatlands are amazingly wild places, home to birds, insects and unusual plants that aren't found anywhere else. Peatlands provide benefits for people too; the UK’s peatlands store around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon. We get 70% of our drinking water from peatland river catchments.

Peat is made up of a mix of partly decomposed plant materials, unique to natural areas called peatlands. In the UK peatlands are some of our wildest places, home to a range of special plants and animals.

Types of peatland habitats

In the UK, we have two main types of peatland habitats (where peat comes from):

1. Lowland raised bog

2. Blanket bog

Both habitats are unusual as they are entirely fed by rainwater and snowmelt, rather than ground water. They tend to be found in more hilly and mountainous areas, although there are still some areas of lowland peatland remaining. Peat takes thousands of years to form as the plant material decays very slowly in wet conditions and gradually becomes compressed into peat - millimetre by millimetre.

Peatlands are tough places to live but wildlife still thrives here including colourful sphagnum mosses, beautiful large heath butterflies and the black darter dragonfly. Peatlands provide important nesting and feeding grounds for many wading birds such as dunlin, curlew and greenshank.

Peat extraction site, Lancashire (Matthew Roberts)

Peat extraction site, Lancashire (Matthew Roberts)

Drainage of our peatlands

Sadly, our peatlands have been suffering for many years and currently 80% of the UK's peatland are in poor condition. A major cause of damage is drainage where channels are cut into the peat to move rainwater off the land in favour of ‘improving’ the bogs for sheep grazing, grouse shooting or plantations of trees by drying them out. Damage can also be caused by burning, air pollution and grazing by sheep itself. In some lowland areas, peat sadly continues to be cut or dug out for sale in compost in garden centres or for commercial horticulture.

The Wildlife Trusts are working across the country to restore these amazing habitats. 

Soils and farming

Increased nutrient levels in soils is caused by agriculture. This comes from the application of nitrogen- and phosphate-based fertilizers and pollution from transport. Soil eroded from farmland and washed down rivers alters the marine ecosystem.

The Wildlife Trusts lobby for a range of measures which are necessary to help our soils recover, including:

  • Setting a target of increasing organic matter in UK arable and horticultural soils by 20% over the next 20 years (1% a year) and put measures in place to achieve this.
  • Ploughing less often or stopping tillage altogether in some circumstances.
  • Replacing artificial fertilisers with natural organic matter.
  • Ensuring crop rotation, and planting catch cover crops.
Case study

Yorkshire Peat Partnership

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has restored more than 100 square miles of peatland habitat

Read more

Restoring peatland habitats on a Yorkshire moorland (Matthew Roberts)

Case study

Pumlumon, Cambrian Mountains

At Pumlumon the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust is working with landowners and farmers to restore and 're-wet' peatland habitats. 

Read more

Pumlumon - Matthew Roberts

Example

Lower Smite Farm

This working farm is managed by Worcestershire Wildlife Trust to demonstrate wildlife-friendly farm management including soil conservation

Read more

Lapwing at Vine House Farm ©Nicholas Watts

Peat in horticulture

Peat has been a major ingredient of compost sold for gardening for many years. This peat is dug out of wild places, damaging some of our last remaining peatlands here in the UK and overseas in places like eastern Europe. This process also releases carbon into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.

But peat-free compost is available – if everyone used it our peatlands would safe from this type of damaging practice. It’s often not the first compost you see, or necessarily the cheapest, but if you ask most stores should stock it. By buying peat free you’re helping our precious peatlands and sending a message to manufacturers that people want peat free products. Both are really important.

Go peat free!!

  • Only buy peat-free compost for your garden. You can check the packaging for this information

  • If you can’t find any peat free compost, just ask! Consumer demand is important and it sends a message to retailers and manufacturers that people want peat free products.

  • Ensure that any plants you buy are not grown in peat soil (by checking their label)

  • Make your own compost. Not only will you be protecting peatlands but you'll also be helping wildlife in your garden too!