Soil. Is it the answer?

In recent years we have thankfully all become aware of the plight of our bees and pollinators and how our survival as a species is interwoven with theirs. I am not undermining this extremely important cause to save this tiny but vital critter! However, what if I were to tell you that there is something being negatively impacted far quicker than our humble bumble bee? Something that forms the basis of all life and the earth as we know it? Something that if looked after properly can reverse the effects of climate change.

Well guess what? There is, and it lies under your very feet in every square inch of every continent in the world. It is the solution we cannot ignore – soil. Soil is the foundation of life as we know it. Soil is one of the world’s most valuable resources, ecosystem and assets. It feeds us, clothes us and sustains everything you see from the chair your sat on (be it made from timber grown in the earth, metal mined from the soil or even plastic made from oil created by decomposed species from millennia ago that grazed or ate other species that grazed on vegetation growing in the soil) to your last meal that was grown, grazed or harvested from the soil itself or the animals that live off the vegetation it sustains.

Omnivore, vegan, vegetarian, environmentalist – soil sees no distinction – it supports us all and we must support it. It also forms the basis of understanding rewilding and climate change. Livestock farming has been given such a bad name by the press and vegan movement, however what they fail to report is that in fact 30% of the carbon dioxide emissions entering our atmosphere and a large proportion of the 75 billion tonnes of soil lost every year to erosion is a direct result of badly managed soils. Soils is often damaged through techniques such as ploughing, cultivating, rolling etc - these are techniques carried out primarily on arable land to grown crops to feed the nation. This is without even looking into the detrimental effect all the pesticides and fertiliser sprays are causing from arable farming. It is naive to think that simply because someone is vegetarian or vegan that they are exempt from the blame that we all must bare to varying extents. In fact I would argue eating a mixed diet of responsibly produced meat and plenty of fresh local fruit and vegetables is far the best way someones diet can help our planet - however that's for another blog post.

So how can we stop this spiralling issue and save our soils? There is no technology on earth, no bank wealthy enough or nation powerful enough to be able to stop this. To find the answer we must look to nature. To our last true wildernesses. The prime example being the African Savannah, where people flock to on safari every year to witness the beauty of this natural wilderness and watch the wealth of wild animals living there. Surely this is the best example of a wild landscape that has no farmers, land managers or shepherds but thrives from the wild processes taking place on it – the perfect example of landscape that we need to aim for through rewilding? Of course the most iconic scene from the African plains that transfixes every viewer of so many animal documentaries is the stampeding of huge herds of buffalo and grazing animals as they flee the clutches of a pack of lions hot on their heels. This is arguably the biggest scale, regular process within this landscape. A landscape, don’t forget, that is thriving with minimal human interference. So why? Why is this landscape thriving? It is my belief and that of many people far more clever than I, that this is due to the healthy soils of this habitat.

Looking to the superb work of Allan Savoury (watch his fascinating TED talk here) it becomes clear that it is the intense grazing of these vast herds, that remove the vegetation from the land through grazing, before returning it as dung that is the key to its healthy soils. Vast herds that graze in high numbers, close together, as there is safety in numbers from predators. Vast herds that continually move whether to find the next patch of fresh grazing as a result of having soiled on their previous pasture or whether on the run from hunting predators. This continual movement means that the grazing animals are moving onto long grasses where they graze intensely for a short period, pooing and trampling the grasses they are grazing before moving to the next patch and repeating the process again. This process creates the answer – it creates soil!

Flora, Moss and I move a large flock of sheep into a small field. Far more sheep than a shepherd would stereotypically put in a field. This ensures we get a large volume of animals grazing, trampling and pooing all over the pasture intensely for a short period of time.

The sheep are removed after a short period of time (maximum 2 days or so). Far quicker than they would usually be under a traditional system. We move them off onto another field. They leave behind them a field where the uneaten grass has been trampled into the ground and the eaten grass has been excreted back onto the land as dung in higher volumes than usual due to the higher numbers of sheep.

The bugs get to work! The worms pull the trampled grasses and dung down into the ground converting it into soil. As the soil is formed through increasing the levels of organic matter carbon is drawn down and locked into the soil. The soil becomes thicker, better at holding water and increasing in its nutrient levels, subsequently growing better, thicker grass and vegetation! This in turn helps to produce increased amounts of more healthy hogget, lamb and mutton which has thrived off the diverse, naturally regenerating grasses. This means we can sustainably feed people from land that is too steep, poor, or stony to grow crops. A win for nature, the climate and the shepherd.

However, surely it would be naïve to think that this process would work here on Dartmoor or anywhere else in the world for that matter as we are not blessed with thousands of buffalo and packs of hungry lions? Once upon a time, tens of thousands of years ago we would instead have had vast herds of ancient cattle like animals known as Aurochs teamed with deer and wild ponies that acted as our buffalo and packs of wolves to act as our lions. Like it or not the sad reality is they are no longer with us and regardless of whether you support reintroduction of species it is virtually impossible for species such as wolves to be reintroduced quickly enough to begin recreating our version of the Savannah’s natural processes to make soil in time to address our ever increasing climate emergency.

However not is all lost! What we do have are flocks of sheep and herds of cattle to replace the lost Aurochs and fences, sheepdogs and farmers to replace the lost wolves. If we can work to change our current farming systems to replicate the natural processes of the Savannah here in the UK on land we are not able to plant crops on such as Dartmoor where the topography, geology and climate make crop growing impossible, then we can begin to create soil at an astounding rate. Soil that will help enhance and regenerate our ecosystems literally from the ground up whilst drawing carbon down from the atmosphere and locking it into the ground indefinitely. For every 1cm of soil we create over a piece of land the size of a football pitch we can draw down 10 tons of carbon from the air and safely store it forever – isn’t that amazing?

So how do we do this? Flora and I have already started doing it and are planning to do more through keeping far larger

flocks of sheep on blocks of land we have divided into more numerous, far smaller fields (blog post on this coming soon) moving our sheep every other day into the next field and the next and the next etc simulating the movement of a large herd of grazing animals by predators. Since doing so we have witnessed what can only be described as a transformation as the soils come alive as they deepen with more microbes, worms and creepy crawlies. This in turn helps the grasses, herbs and wild flowers to flourish. This year we carried out a wild flower count on a patch of land in Chagford we rent and we got to over 80 different species). This has stimulated a knock on effect up the food chain with owls, stoats, foxes and buzzards now appearing in ever greater numbers on our land. It should also be noted that alongside this we never spray fertilisers, pesticides etc on our land and aim to farm to organic principles despite not being registered organic (it’s too difficult to be registered when you have 16 landlords).

Our sheep are helping to restore our soils, our soils are restoring wildlife populations and the wildlife is thriving on our ecosystems. Best of all we are also playing our part in sustainably feeding people as a result of these adjustments to what was a ‘traditional’ based upland farm model.

Allan Savoury’s research has found that if holistic grazing practices such as this were adopted over just half the worlds grasslands, then enough carbon could be taken out of the atmosphere and stored safely in the grassland soils to take us back to pre-industrial levels at the same time as producing enough food for the world.

It is unarguable that the answer to many of our world problems lies under our feet and the only way to grow, feed and nurture the soil under our feet is through the grazing. I often hear people say they are ‘rewilding’ their land and therefore do not want grazing animals, but sadly it seems they have miss understood the concept. To get back to a wild landscape we must be using greater numbers of grazing animals, in a different way – they are the tools that will deliver re-wilded landscapes.

I would highly recommend reading ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree for anyone who would like to understand this more as well as ‘English Pastoral’ by James Rebanks. However, if you read one be sure to read the other – they work well as a pair.

Thank you to Ann Searson for the illustrations.

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