Healthy soils are vital to a sustainable environment. They store carbon, produce food and timber, filter water and support wildlife and the urban and rural landscapes. They also preserve records of ecological and cultural past. However, there are signs across the EU that the condition of soils has been neglected, not least in Northern Ireland.
To address this EU-wide issue, the draft EU Soil Framework Directive was introduced by the European Commission in 2006, although not brought forward as legislation, the commitment to sustainable soil use is still in line with the Seventh Environment Action Programme.
Objectives of the AFBI Soil Quality Programme
The current AFBI Soil Quality Programme has three main objectives:
- To determine the state of soil quality across Northern Ireland
- To determine the rate of change in soil quality
- To determine how soil quality integrates into environmental sustainability
The strategy of the Soil Quality Programme is to maintain a balance of monitoring, risk assessment and extension:
- The AFBI Representative Soil Sampling Scheme (RSSS) programme monitors soil quality at 500 locations (on intensive cattle farms) across the province (100 samples per year on a 5-yr rolling programme; currently on year 3 of second cycle). AFBI also operates a 5km grid survey to monitor soil quality (over 600 locations, all land cover types, sampled on a 10-year cycle; next in 2014/15). At these sites, factors such as soil fertility and bulk density are sampled and measured. The existing AFBI soil quality databases have already played pivotal roles in Northern Ireland. Examples include (i) the re-designation of LFA (as required by EU), (ii) identifying areas where sewage sludge can be disposed off (also required by EU legislation), (iii) quantifying the influence of soil and land class on badger activity and the incidence of bovine TB (in conjunction with DAERA Veterinary Service) and (iv) creating a C-inventory for Northern Ireland soils (as part of the CEH LULUCF programme).
- We have used the data from our monitoring programmes to model and map potential risks from erosion and runoff from slurry on a province-wide basis. Modelling will continue to be used in the development of hazard/risk maps and soil quality assessment e.g. assessing the potential impact on grazing animals of high Cs-137 activity deposited on peaty soils after the Chernobyl incident (in conjunction with DAERA Veterinary Service).
- AFBI increases awareness of soil quality in Northern Ireland by presenting our work at conferences, workshops (e.g. on methods to minimise soil compaction), field days and tours. AFBI provides soil quality updates for the annual ‘Northern Ireland Environmental Statistics Report’.
Long-term monitoring of soil quality in Northern Ireland must be maintained to provide an early warning of the potential effects different land use activities may be having on long-term soil quality e.g. the impact of changes in fertiliser usage (organic and mineral) on soil and water quality as a result of the Nitrates Action Plan in Northern Ireland. Monitoring can help identify whether soil quality is degrading over time and what factors may be contributing to soil degradation e.g. the impact of climate change on GHG emissions from soils and C-sequestration rates. This information can then be used to help manage our soil resources in a sustainable manner into the future and to guide the development of policies to protect soil, water and air quality across Northern Ireland; for example soil P values are reported annually on the Northern Ireland environmental statistics report webpages.