Soils are an important natural resource. Healthy soils provide us with a wide range of essential benefits. Ensuring soils are in a good state so that they can deliver these benefits is vital for us, our economy and the wider environment.
A comprehensive State of Scotland’s Soil Report was published in 2011. It concluded that the main threats to Scotland’s soils were loss of organic matter, changes in soil biodiversity, erosion, and covering soil in impermeable materials such as concrete. Work continues to find out more about the state of our soils, some of which has been published in a range of papers and reports.
State of Scotland's Soil Report 2011
The most recent State of Scotland’s Soil Report was published in 2011. It collated the information available at the time from a variety of sources. It looked at the benefits soils provide, the processes that damage soils and the effects that damaged soils can have on people, the economy and the wider environment.
The report assessed the relative importance of the processes that damage Scotland’s soils and identified the main threats as:
- loss of organic matter;
- changes in soil biodiversity;
- covering soils with waterproof materials.
The report concluded that the main challenges in future would be:
- improving policy integration
- tackling the lack of systematic Scottish soil data
- understanding soil management
These challenges have begun to be addressed in the years since the report was published. For example, a Soil Monitoring Action Plan for Scotland has been published and work is going on to implement it. A lot of research has been carried out on many of the areas of concern. There is more recognition of the role soils play in other environmental problems, for example in diffuse water pollution.
The State of Scotland’s Soil Report, Scotland’s Soils website and Scotland’s Soil Monitoring Action Plan, along with more detailed findings from research, provide information and evidence on the state of Scotland’s soils. They enable access to the underlying data, start to meet the requirement for new soils data and increase awareness of the importance of soils.
Further background information on the state of Scotland’s soils can be found in the resources section.
Wider impacts of the state of Scotland’s soils
The state of our soils is important for a wide range of other reasons:
Effects on climate
Scotland’s soils contain large amounts of carbon (more than 3000 million tonnes) – that is more than half of the UK’s soil carbon store and 60 times more than Scotland’s vegetation. If we lost just 1% of our soil carbon as carbon dioxide, we would triple our annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Scotland’s agricultural soils are the main source of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide in Scotland, contributing 79% to our total nitrous oxide emissions in 2014.
Effects on water
Around 40% of surface waterbodies at risk of not meeting water quality targets are affected by diffuse pollution from farming and forestry.
Effects on flooding
The spaces found between soil particles can store water and allow it to travel through the soil on its way to rivers. A recent study found that in winter, 18 % of agricultural topsoils had very poor soil structural conditions. This could increase the risk of localised flooding because it reduces the amount of water that could soak into the soil, meaning it is more likely to run off into rivers.
Effects on crop yields
Compacted soils have fewer spaces between the soil particles and so have less water and air available for roots. So, crops do not grow as well in compacted soil. Adding more nitrogen to the soil can sometimes mask this problem. One study in Scotland found that twice as much nitrogen was needed for the same crop yield in a compacted soil than a non-compacted soil.
Effects on habitats
Deposition of nitrogen from the air onto naturally nutrient-poor soils can change the soils over time, altering the habitat and the wildlife it supports. Over much of Scotland the amount of nitrogen being deposited is greater than the amount which peatland-forming plants can tolerate.
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