Soil can look after itself – can’t it?
A difficulty with soils being underneath us is that we cannot really see when things are going wrong, as we can when plants and animals disappear or die. There is a tendency to assume that everything is ‘all right’. But, in other parts of the world, misuse of the soil has brought about a whole list of major environmental disasters. In both the past and at present, this neglect has led to catastrophic consequences. The effects of drought on over-farmed land in Africa during the 1980s and the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s are familiar examples, but there is good evidence that the collapse of several ancient civilisations was influenced at least in part by mismanagement of the soil.
Whilst the situation in Scotland is not like this, there are still several issues of concern. Soil erosion, pollution, acidification, loss of fertility and of organic matter all occur in different parts of the country. These problems result either directly or indirectly from using inappropriate management techniques on particular soils.
It should be evident that when we talk about nature conservation and environmental protection the well-being of soils must also be a major consideration.
Soil is essential for many of mankind’s activities. Yet it is a part of our environment which is frequently taken for granted. We only start to take notice when it becomes damaged in some way, for example by pollution or erosion.
Even then, the damage to the soil itself is not always the main issue. Instead, it is the follow-on effects on other parts of the environment that receive much of the attention. The rate of soil development is extremely slow, at least in the timescales of humans. It has taken hundreds, thousands and, in some environments, millions of years to produce the range of soils that exist today. The soil is not an unlimited resource to be lost or damaged by poor management – just a few years of inappropriate use can, in some instances, seriously harm a soil which has developed over centuries.