Soil - the biodiversity underworld

18 December 2019 | Posted in Fran Southgate , Landscape Innovation
Soil - the biodiversity underworld
Tardigrades © Bob Goldstein & Vicky Madden / Goldstein Lab

By Fran Southgate

Living Landscape Advisor

Soil is an amazing thing. Without soil we wouldn’t eat much, yet so many of us still see it as just dirt. Healthy soils store more carbon than the world’s oceans, and they are one of the most under publicised, wildlife-rich habitats on the planet. 

Soil is alive with wildlife but we know less about the things that live in soil than we do about what lives in the rainforests, because the majority of the life in soil is microscopic. Experts estimate that we recognise only 10% of the species that live in soil – so there is a whole world there still to discover. There are literally billions of living organisms in just a tablespoon of soil – everything from worms to fungi and fantastical micro-bear beings called Tardigrades.

Soils, and the animals and bacteria that live in them, are the stomach of the earth, carrying out important natural processes such as consuming, digesting and cycling nutrients and organisms across vast areas of essential micro-biome. This biodiverse underworld also becomes a vast sponge, soaking up floods and water which is held and released slowly during droughts when we most need it. 

The key is soil health. Healthy soils, bursting with bacteria, bugs, fungi, plant roots and worms are why soils are so important to life on earth. We need to pay soils more attention and to conserve and restore them to health. 

Through wilful ignorance we have abused this incredible natural resource for far too long. Now we need to restore the natural processes which allow precious soils to re-form across our landscapes, and drastically reduce the processes such as compaction, chemical spraying and soil erosion which are leading to their degradation. It can take up to 1,000 years for just 1 centimetre of topsoil to form, so it may be a long road to the recovery of this underground biodiverse universe. 

On 23 January 2020 we are holding a Landscape Innovation Conference where we will discuss some of the ways in which we can tackle climate change. Soils are an important part of that conversation, for food and farming, resilient communities and climate change resilience. Come and join the conversation to help us create local solutions.

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