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Soil Health Indicators

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The Government responded to Environmental Audit Committee report on Soil Health (June 2016)
which urged "government to set out specific, measurable and time-limited plans to increase the amount of carbon retained in UK soils, warning that otherwise it would not meet plans ministers signed up to at the Paris Climate Summit in December 20 (2015)"MPs on the EA Committee also criticised the lack of soil monitoring in the UK, and expressed concern that “Defra's current ad hoc approach to conducting surveys of soil health is inadequate.” They said the government needs a national-scale monitoring scheme for soil health to ensure that there is adequate information available on the state of the nation's soil.
The government claimed that ministers are already taking action to improve soil health, but acknowledged that more needs to be done. It said the forthcoming 25 Year Environmental Plan (which has been delayed indefinitely along with the 25 Year Agricultural Strategy in light of June’s EU Referendum result) “should set out specific, measurable and time-limited actions” towards increasing soil organic matter. More from Farming Online

What is Soil Health?

1. Chemical Comparisons. Sheffield University compared allotments and arable farms "measured a range of soil properties, including soil organic carbon levels, total nitrogen, and the ratio between carbon and nitrogen (which are all directly related to the amount and quality of organic matter in the soil) as well as soil bulk density, an indicator of soil compaction."

2. I mentioned in an Food Ethics Council Blog for Soil Day 2014 Save our Soils that 'Soil Organic Matter' is probably a better measure than 'Carbon content' when trying to assess the health of the soil. Can we use soil animals as an indicator?

Soil Health and Soil Animals "Soil animals have an important role in the formation of soil structure. Soil animals improve soil structure by forming channels and pores, concentrating fine soil particles together into aggregates and by fragmenting and mixing organic matter through soil."

3 'Soil health' describes how well soil performs all of its functions now and how those functions are being preserved for future use. Soil health is not determined by measuring only crop yield, water quality, or any other single outcome. Soil health cannot be measured directly, any more than we can do that for ourselves. So we use Soil Quality Indicators.
Indicators are properties of soil or plants that can be measured in order to provide clues about how well the soil is functioning. Indicators can be physical, chemical, and biological properties, processes, or characteristics of soils. They can also be morphological or visual features of plants. USDA

Indicator Examples and Relationship to Soil Health
Soil organic matter => nutrient retention; soil fertility; soil structure; soil stability; and soil erosion
Physical: bulk density, infiltration, soil structure and macropores, soil depth, and water holding capacity => retention and transport of water and nutrients; habitat for soil microbes; estimate of crop productivity potential; compaction, plow pan, water movement; porosity; and workability
Chemical: electrical conductivity, reactive carbon, soil nitrate, soil pH, and extractable phosphorus and potassium => biological and chemical activity thresholds; plant and microbial activity thresholds; and plant available nutrients and potential for N and P loss
Biological: earthworms, microbial biomass C and N, particulate organic matter, potentially mineralizable N, soil enzymes, soil respiration, and total organic carbon => microbial catalytic potential and repository for C and N; soil productivity and N supplying potential; and microbial activity measure

Soil Health Assessment Guidelines

"Guidelines for Soil Quality Assessment in Conservation Planning" describes a step-by step process for assessing soil health. It will help you decide whether to do an elaborate or simple assessment, which tools to use, and what management practices to use to address soil health concerns. While the guidelines are presented in the context of the NRCS 9-step conservation planning process, they are also useful in informal assessments, or as an educational resource for teaching soil health concepts. This guide uses the terms soil health, soil quality, and soil condition interchangeably.

Soil Health Indicators for Educators "Each guide includes an introduction to the soil property, discussion of the inherent and management factors influencing it, and explanation of the property's relationship to soil function. The educator's guides also include detailed information on a method to measure the soil property and interpretations of the test results. "

Proposal for Popular indicator of Soil health

Application of National Sustainable Agriculture Indicators

I've been asked by several people to come up with popular indicator of the health of our sols So here goes..

The idea of indicator species is well founded. Here in UK the Biodiversity Action Plan sets out priority species’ that we need to keep an eye on, and they are usually called BAP species..

So why don’t we do the something similar to indicate the state of our soils – or soil health’?

The Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas

There are many ways to provide indicators soil quality, using physical chemical and biological methods. But they are at best dull, and some dubious. They don’t bring the soil to life – the element we are wanting to attract attention for.
Cranfield carried out study for DEFRA to find which Soil Quality Indicator (SQI) was best for determining quality of soil using physical indicators. Out of the top 7, they could not identify any particular one

So why don’t we have indicators of the LIVING Soil? We need one that is visible an easy to communicate with people and represent what is going on in the soil. This is a way of shining a light on what otherwise is a dark and unseen world – almost the last environment to be explored. We know more about planets billions of miles away than we do about what is under our feet.

So we want people to

a. Propose indicators of living soil

b. Vote on them (we will set up an online voting system)

It is part 1 where you come in. We want you to propose an indicator creature , that you believe demonstrates a ‘healthy soil’. You then have to explain why and how, taking this opportunity to explain more of the workings of the soil – the main point of the exercise.

Here are three possible indicators
 Indicator  Why  How   Role  Supporting Evidence
 Starling   V. visible  Eat Worms Provide food for higher up chain Birds Eye View
Worm Iconic Status Make structure Provide spaces for other animals Worms at Work
 Springtails Easy to extractLook after roots  Keep plants healthy 
Oribatid Mites E O Wilson Break down debris Transform inedible stuff into edible for others Mites feeding

 Mesostignatid Mites Like Buzzards Eat Springtails Must be lots of Springtails if these mites aroundMesotig Chomp
 Woodlice Easy to recognise Eat Fungal cords By eating microbes keep GHGs down Global Warming

Indicator Why How What Supporting Videos
Starling V. visible Eat Worms Provide food for higher up chain Birds Eye View
Worm Iconic Status Make structure Provide spaces for other animals Worms at Work
Oribatid Mites E O Wilson Break down debris Transform inedible stuff into edible for others Mites feeding


e o wilson
E O Wilson 1 minute Interview by Roger Highfield New Scientist Vol 203 Issue 2722 19 Aug 2009 p23
“Saving Earth’s biodiversity will take nothing less than an IPCC for species” says the world’s leading biologist and ant guru…”We are not making the headway we should be in preventing the destruction of ecosystems and species…Most Americans have only the vaguest notion about any of that, even though they can talk intelligently about climate change. Yet when it comes to the living world they are in danger of losing something they scarcely understand. What are they missing? People see nature as trees, plants and vertebrates. Yet the world is run by little creatures most people have not heard of; They are called 'oribatids' "  Other E O Wilson quotes

The most abundant and crucial land animals are the tiny oribatid mites, which are the size of a pinhead and look like a cross between a turtle and a spider. They are a linchpin organism of the environment, but 20 years ago when I set out to identify them no one had heard of them. Back then there were just two people in the US able to identify them. Fortunately one agreed to work with me. Yet we still don’t know what the vast majority of oribatids do.”

40 years ago I could identify the main groups of oribatids, and wish I could now.

[[Here I have to confess that while E O Wilson is probably the greatest evolutionary biologist on the planet, I have problems with him. When I was a 'radical scientist' in the mid 1970's we used to slag him off because he promoted something called 'sociobiology' a science trying to link evolutionary mechanics (eg genes) with social behaviours - like altruism. We argued that he was being 'biologically reductionist' - trying to explain everything in terms of molecules, rather than life overall. I thought he had a re-think..BUT

He is in the middle of another controversy where we are trying to get our heads round whether 'group' or 'kin' relationships are the more important in passing on these nice behaviours like Altruism (how do you measure that for scientific purposes?). I just don't think 'nice behaviours' are genetically determined. I feel like the author of 'E O Wilson Please retire or stick to ants' - referring to his research on ants eating oribatids. He still  doesnt seem able to believe that we humans affect each other enormously - and we need to understand that better, rather than looking at ants for help]]

Springtails Saviours of our soil

I showed an interested group of people at Incredible Edibles In Todmorden. where we extracted soil creatures using very cheap method. from a range of habitats. They were particularly surprised when they saw how many soil invertebrates from soil compost bought at garden centre - none, compared with my own compost – teaming. Why? Because bought compost is sterilised.

I explained about two main roles of soil invertebrates – keeping plants healthy (springtails) and breaking down plant debris (springtails on surface and oribatid mites deeper down). They were unanimous that the group that should be championed were the springtails (Collembola)
There is an important process in the soil, that involves these springtails. But they don’t really get the recognition they deserve.

There are often 30-200,000 of them per square meter. But we cant see them and never talk about them. If they were an insect – which some consider they are, but most people see them as a ‘pre-insect’. They have the makings of an insect but not the mouthparts or wings. And they ahev a couple of other funny structures
They nibble away at plant debris and round roots. In so doing, they clean up the bits of root that are sloughed off when dead. And they eat dead bits of nearby fungi too. Fungi are often found growing on/in the roots. They are called mycorrhiza and their hyphae (filaments) enable the roots to have a much bigger surface area to absorb nutrients from the soil into the plant. Springtails play a vital role as they pick up spores on their tegument and then them roots quite incidentally (like pollen with bees). So soil springtails play a positive role in the establishment of plant-fungal symbioses and thus are beneficial to agriculture (more) . You could call them 'the bees of the soil'. The fungi use the sugars in the plant to give them energy to absorb the nutrients from the soil – produced by our friends the oribatids.

And these little springtails – as their name suggest, have one unique structure, found nowhere else in nature. A springtail. More properly it is called a ‘furcula’. Great word. It enables the little creatures to spring. Which isn’t a very useful function if buried in soil. But near the soil surface it gets them out of all sorts of problems – most particularly dryness. The cant stand dry. Because….

Their breathing system is earlier than insects. They don’t have ‘trachae’ like insects – tubules going from the skin into internal organs. Instead they just have a porous surface. And their mouthparts are internal whereas insects are external. That is why they don’t like dry conditions – and spring out of them – v successfully, as NHM says they are most abundant insect on the planet….but most taxonomists do not consider them as insects.

The latin name of these creatures – Collembola is from the Greek colle meaning glue and embolon meaning piston or peg. This ventral tube, or collophore, is thought to be important for regulating their water intake, but it also helps them to stick to surfaces. .

So they have been around for a long time – longer than insects. In fact, probably when soil first evolved. The first springtail ever found as a fossil was in Scotland and dates back to 400 million years ago - when the soil was evolving. They are an integral part on the soil entity.
The springtail Folsomia candida is also becoming a genomic model organism for soil toxicology.[66][67]

There is even an ISO standard Soil Quality Inhibition of reproduction in Folsomia candida by soil pollutants. And another one F candida Avoidance Test.

That is why we want to highlight them, and celebrate them as saviours of our soil. They keep our plants healthy. There is another good reason. They didn’t like dry. We extract them by making their soil dry, so they come out easily (oribatids role up in a ball and sit still). They are easy for people to extract.. just a cola bottle tin can..see DIY

Biology of Collembola National History Museum

Where Springtails fit in the soil web

Collembola.org Where found

Collembolans are everywhere around the world. They like plant litter. There are less in arable soils..Countryside Survey. As there is less and less devris..so less and less carbon on the soil.

Collembolans don't 'like' herbicides (weedkillers) like 'Roundup'. Collembola are very sensitive to herbicides and thus are threatened in no-tillage agriculture, which makes a more intense use of herbicides than conventional agriculture.[65] But these test were in the lab. Whereas my PhD thesis on the 'Effects of Herbicides on Soil Animals' was in the field. Basically I couldn't find any toxic effects - and admit to being disappointed, until I realised it didn't matter how the soil animal numbers were reduced, they just were. But I never published the work, which I now regret and want to do so, especially as the toxicity of Roundup is causing a major argument.

I have made first video (could do better!) of some soil animals using a petri dish with tissue and a digital microscope. A predatory Mestostigmatic mite arrives after about 50 sec. I have never seen a video of one of these eating. Am thinking of setting competition for most interesting soil animal video (of 3 mins).

Following this, Pam @ Tod showed me a room which she said could become a soil laboratory, fixed with electronic communication devices. It could be used to communicate across the world, and share experiences about the state of our soils – using springtails as main indicator. She reckons that she could get all the Incredible Edibles throughout the world to become part of a springtail network. We are thinking of calling it Dr Clutterbug's Living Soil Laboratory

And hence the name/pun Springtail Watch.

Mesostigmatid Mites
Since then I have watched a lot and realise a better indicator is the main predator of these Springtails - those Mesostimatic mites. Just like the presence of buzzards tells us prey is around, these mites tell us there are lots of springtails that indicate healthy roots of the plants. Those mesostigmatic mites are also very easy to spot and identify. Here one mite polishing one off a Springtail...
Mesostigmatid mites 
Look at a Mesostigmatid mite feeding

Collecting WoodliceWoodlice collectingWoodlice & Global Warmimg