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 - now and in the future. Soils also lock-in carbon, help clean away chemicals, hold back floodwater and support an array of life forms - from moulds to earthworms. Land management and land use planning decisions must protect soils and help them to regenerate.

Why are soils important?

The British Isles are a remarkable group of more than 200 islands. They 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 nutrient enrichment and sedimentation resulting from soil being eroded from the landscape is being carried out to sea. This is having an impact on wildlife. Healthy soils are fundamental to insect life and natural fertility. Furthermore, good soil health and effective management of soils is vital to the economic future of any land management business. If we continue to degrade nature through damaging land management practices we will not be able to grow food or drink water, let alone enjoy wildlife and wild places.

Lapwing in soil on farm

Mark Hamblin / 2020VISION

What The Wildlife Trusts are doing

We advise other 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 also 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.

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 4,500 million tonnes of atmospheric carbon (that’s 100 times more than all UK vegetation including trees). 70% of our drinking water comes 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 insect-eating plants, and plants with names that Roald Dahl would have been pleased with such as butterwort and bog myrtle. In addition, the beautiful large heath butterfly and a range of dragonfly species including the black darter dragonfly thrive in the wet conditions. Peatlands also 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 more quickly 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, trampling and/or grazing by sheep itself. And in some lowland areas, peat sadly continues to be cut or dug out for sale in compost in garden centres or for commercial horticulture.

However, The Wildlife Trusts are working across the country to restore these amazing habitats. Upland peatland restoration can have a direct effect on water quality and flood alleviation as well as being vital carbon stores and wildlife havens.

Soils and farming

Increased nutrient levels in soils is caused principally by agriculture – from the application of nitrogen- and phosphate-based fertilizers – and atmospheric pollution from transport – which leads to raised dissolved nitrogen in rainfall. At sea, continuing deposition of soil eroded from farmland and washed down many of the UK’s rivers is likely to continue to alter the marine ecosystem without significant changes to the way the UK’s soils are managed and conserved.

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

Lower Smite Farm (Worcestershire Wildlife Trust) - Zoe Stevens

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.

What you can do to help

  • 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! Find out how to do this below.

Peatland wildlife and habitats