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Estimates suggest Scotland loses around 920 000 tonnes of soil, with the total cost of soil erosion equating to an estimated £50 million [1]. Being able to reduce and retain soil on farm will bring production, financial and environmental benefits. 

Healthy soils are fundamental to agricultural productivity, but also bring wider 'ecosystem services' such as nutrient cycling and carbon storage, sustaining woodlands, water storage and buffering pollutant transport as well as supporting ecosystem biodiversity.  

The term soil health refers to a soil’s capacity to function and provide these ecosystem services.   Soil health is monitored through the assessment of key soil physical, chemical and biological properties.  

Good soil health is key to achieving target yields alongside contributing to wider farm resilience.  For example, soils with good structure, high organic matter and diverse species of flora and fauna can support nutrient uptake, recycling and retention, leading to improved sustainable soils. Good soil health and resilience can reduce diffuse pollution risk through reduced soil compaction, erosion and nutrient runoff from the soil. It has been estimated that annually.  

SOIL QUALITY: Soil quality refers to the physical, chemical and biological properties such as soil texture.

SOIL HEALTH: Soil health refers to how well the soil performs, for example compaction, crop growth etc.

Gaining an understanding of your soil and soil health status will help you target remedial actions, make better use of nutrients and help to achieve target yields.

Soil systems are a matrix of water, air, mineral particles and organic material (Figure 1). Soils develop as a result of the interplay of five soil forming factors (parent material, organic material, climate, topography and time) and soil development processes (such as weathering, organic matter accumulation, deposition, nutrient and water cycling). Soil formation is a very slow process where in general, few centimetres taking thousands of years to develop.   

Figure 1 Soil Composition

Soil systems provide many supporting, regulatory, provision and cultural ecosystem functions such as; 

  • Crop productivity & food security 
  • Forestry and landscape quality 
  • A major sink (or source) of carbon (and other nutrients),  
  • Environmental Interactions (can filter, transfer, buffer pollutants),  
  • Regulation of major elemental cycles,  
  • Habitat for organisms and ecosystems – Biodiversity/gene pool 
  • Important for water quality and flood management  
  • Cultural heritage in terms of protecting archaeological remains and burial grounds 

These services are integral to the agricultural sector and we need to ensure that soils are protected and enhanced to continue to deliver these services sustainably. Soil formation is continuous but in most situations it is very slow. Therefore, managing soils sustainably is vital to conserve the ecosystems services that soil provide. Soil health provides a means of assessing a soil’s capacity to perform these functions.