Where’s the most biodiverse place in the Sid Valley?

As biodiverse and rich as they are, it's not the meadows, woodlands, cliffs or beach. It’s far more mundane and is underfoot. It’s the soil.

Soil is essential to life. Yet so many of us ignore it. But soil is involved in producing most of what we eat or drink. From the water we drink, the cereals we grow for bread and beer, or the grapes we grow for wine, to the vegetables and fruit on our plates, all depend on the water that percolates through, or flows over, the soil.

Without soil there is no life. But what surprises many people is that soil is “alive”. It’s not just crushed up rocks and minerals. It’s full of useful microscopic bacteria, fungi, diatoms and tardigrades as well as larger fauna such as the worms that turn our soil and help decompose organic matter.

Depending where it comes from, a teaspoonful of soil contains between one and seven billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes.

Another surprise to many people is that soil has structure. Within it there is a huge volume of space. It’s like a microscopic underground cavern complex with mile after mile of microscopic caves full of roots, bacteria, fungi, water and air. The air is a crucial component as it’s vital for the plant roots that are anchored in the soil.

Not all soils are the same. Some are derived from sandstones, others from chalk, some are clay or silt based, whilst others are peat. Each has a different level of acidity, alkalinity and organic matter content which, in turn, affects what grows best in that soil.

We’ve known about this for years. But new facts are coming to light all the time. For example recent research at Leeds University has been measuring the amount of carbon in soils. It varies for many reasons.

Fields that are regularly ploughed, and gardens that are frequently dug, have lower carbon reserves than uncultivated soils. The soil under hedges, where there is no cultivation, gradually accumulates carbon. It's the same in grass fields, and other areas such as woodland, where soils aren’t ploughed, the carbon levels increase over time.

Soils have the ability to sequester huge quantities of carbon. Far more than trees, which are often considered as a carbon sequestration quick fix. It's not that trees don't sequester carbon, they do, but soil can sequester much more and for far longer. Especially if it is left to its own devices.

So where field hedges can be left in situ, or reinstated, and where cultivations can be reduced or stopped, carbon storage increases. It's one of the reasons that No Dig gardening is taking off and why an increasing number of farmers are going down the Regenerative Agriculture route. With the government having trialled and now expanding sustainable farming incentives, it looks like this could be one of our favoured carbon capture methods.

It's not just the big landowners that can get involved with this form of carbon capture. Though most gardens are relatively small, there are over 400,000 hectares of garden in the UK. And if we all stopped digging just a small area of our garden, the amount of extra carbon captured over the next decades would be huge!