'Soil Matters: Managing Scotland’s Soils in the 21st Century' Weekend 2019
Ardtornish House, Lochaline, Morvern, North Argyll
Soil Matters: Managing Scotland’s Soils in the 21st Century
14 – 16 June 2019, at Ardtornish House, Lochaline, Morvern, North Argyll, organised by The Andrew Raven Trust SCO39488.
This was the 12th Andrew Raven Trust Weekend, and as Amanda Raven, founding trustee of the Trust, pointed out in her welcome, it had as its subject a truly foundational topic: the very earth under our feet.
It was a timely choice: the crucial importance of soil to the future environmental, ecological and economic health of the planet has become increasingly widely recognised over the last few years.
Presentations over the weekend covered subjects millions of years and many thousands of geographical miles apart. Big problems were aired and imaginative solutions were proposed. Global issues were raised, but viewed from local and on-the-ground experience. Scotland and Scottish expertise were centre stage.
Three or four quotations from the first evening stick in the mind, beautifully informing and illuminating the weekend’s discussions:
‘Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.’
Ovid, Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters
‘The West Highlands may be cursed by a prevalence of high winds and a high rainfall, but they are blessed with a mild, soft climate. We can certainly grow cow food and a plentiful, varied quantity of vegetables for the table if we get our arable land into good heart. If we have not as big an acreage as we should like, we must achieve results by intensifying our methods of cultivation to increase the yield.’
Frank Fraser Darling, Crofting Agriculture: ‘What is ‘good heart’?’
‘Without fields, no us. Without us, no fields … The relationship is rooted yet simple, ancient yet living.’
Tim Dee, Four Fields
‘Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children.’
Native American saying
And a memorable fact: Cleopatra declared the earthworm sacred due to its contribution to soil fertility, and its removal from the earth was punishable by death.
(Thanks to Professor Richard Bardgett for this).
Priscilla Gordon Duff, Chair of the Andrew Raven Trust, welcomed returning and new visitors. Amanda Raven welcomed everyone to Ardtornish House, and pointed out just how central the topic of soil is to ART’s principles of sustainable development.
Visitors had been asked in advance to bring with them something summarising their idea of soil. Trustee Annie McKee explained that these items would be shared among small groups in the first session of the weekend, as an ice-breaker activity, and there would be opportunities to revisit the discussions prompted by the various items over the course of the weekend. People shared maps, photographs, data sets, plants and jamjars of soil, describing the personal associations and memories they carried. After very little time, the ice was broken.
Three short presentations focussed on the land and soil of Morvern, taking us from the deepest geological time through the past couple of centuries to the present.
Dr Chris Thomas, Honorary Research Associate of the British Geological Survey, promised a gallop through the geology of Morvern at a rate of a hundred million years a minute.
For such a small country, he said, Scotland’s geology is rich and varied, with world-class examples, and the geology around the small area of Loch Aline is diverse. However, only very small snapshots are represented by the rocks here. The oldest are the ancient metamorphic rocks of the Moine Supergroup, formed about 1000 million years ago, metamorphosed about 800 million years ago and again 400 million years later. This resulted in intensely complicated rock formations that are difficult to interpret and to understand. The much younger rocks deposited on the Moine are records of deserts, swamps, tropical seas and beaches and the violence of major volcanoes.
Scotland was once part of an ancient continental mass that included North America and Greenland, with an ocean between Scotland and what is now England and Wales. 480 – 400 million years ago there occurred a complex series of events known as the Caledonian Orogeny, which built the mountains of the Scotland we know today. Scotland and England became physically united about 420 million years ago, a feat achieved geologically some time before politics became an issue.Loch Aline itself has been a valley for about 250 million years – not that much different topographically from the way it is today.
Thin coals and sandstones were deposited about 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous period. The deserts of the Triassic period resulted in sands and arid soils. During the Jurassic, limestone and shale were deposited in shallow tropical seas.The greensand and glass sand of the Cretaceous, the latter unique in the UK, also reflect tropical shallow marine conditions. During the Paleogene, volcanoes flooded the landscape with basalt lavas as the Atlantic opened up
The ice ages of the last two million years scoured glacial troughs and smoothed hillsides, depositing glacial boulder clays, sands and gravels as the ice sheets advanced and retreated.
As Chris crossed the geological finishing line, two million years suddenly seemed almost like yesterday.
Later in the weekend, Chris led one of Saturday afternoon’s excursions, which gave people a chance to see the cataclysmic geological events he’d described, imprinted in the rocks and soils of Ardtornish Estate.
The hills and valleys of the Morvern peninsula came into closer focus as Morvern archaeologist Dr. Jennie Robertson spoke about the surveys she has carried out over the last 25 years looking at the local pattern of townships and settlements which were occupied before the Highland Clearances.
In geological terms, Morvern broadly divides into three areas: basalt flows in the west, metamorphic schists in the middle and pink granite in the east.
Current settlement is focussed on Lochaline village, where around 300 people live. But going back 200 years, the picture was very different. Then, there were about 2000 people on the peninsula, working in a largely agricultural economy.
The settlements were mainly concentrated on the best soil, the basalt, with another series of settlements on the metamorphic rocks of the White Glen and only a scattering on the poor soils of the granite. There was a string of townships along the Sound of Mull, arranged in strips so that each township had access to low ground suitable for arable cultivation as well as the high pasture for summer grazing.
At that time, people relied on rearing black Highland cattle, which were sent to markets along the drove roads. Evidence has been found of even earlier dairying activity, going back many centuries, and some evidence exists for prehistoric settlements.
Jennie showed pictures of her most recent survey, carried out this year into the Achranich outfields just east of Lochaline. The field system is still visible, as is the evidence of the hard work involved in growing crops. Many cairns, made from cleared stones, can still be seen, as can walls and carefully maintained kailyards. Enormous effort was put into the system of lazy beds - about which it should be pointed out there was nothing lazy whatsoever. (The word is derived from an obsolete meaning of ‘lazy’ as ‘untilled’.)
Angus Robertson, recently retired after 35 years working for Ardtornish Estate, as Estate and Farm Manager from 1984 and Energy Manager from 2009, gave us a picture of contemporary activity in the area. He is now a Director of Morvern Community Development Company, and closely involved in the area’s current land management activities, including plans to develop a large community owned hydro scheme on the Barr river in Forestry and Land Scotland’s Fiunary Forest.
Ardtornish Estate occupies 35,000 acres or 60 square miles of Morvern soil and its activities are therefore influential on local soil and land management strategies. Tourism is now one of the Estate’s biggest enterprises, with 5 self-catering apartments and 8 other properties. The magnificent 23 acre woodland garden at the head of the loch, rich in species rhododendron and other acid-soil loving plants is a strong attraction for visitors of all ages. (Faith Raven’s book The Ardtornish Garden: a Highland Garden in Morvern, Lochaber was available at the weekend giving wonderful insight into its history and reminding us of the role gardeners play in nurturing soil). Ardtornish House, where the Trust weekend is held, also hosts a range of other functions such as weddings, which help maintain its Grade A Victorian interiors. Traditional activities such as stalking and fly fishing are also important, if less central, parts of the Estate’s enterprises which impact land/soil management as well as income.
A new generation of Hydro-electric schemes have taken off in Scotland in the past decade, and the Estate has been at the vanguard of this new, green energy programme which has had a significant impact on income; the Estate now generates around 3.4 megawatts of electricity. This offers new opportunities for investment in sustainable soil and land management which the current Directors of AEC and the Raven family are actively exploring. A recent report commissioned from Rob Brett, Director of the Africa programme at Flora and Fauna International, found that habitats and species are in decline, largely as a result of grazing management, with soil fertility and management also implicated.
As a result, the Estate is developing a new land management strategy, currently out for consultation. Significant plans include a further increase in broadleaf woodland, and the repair of soils and vegetation damaged through entrenched grazing habits of red deer, sheep and cattle. Ardtornish Farms, the Estate’s farming enterprise, have considerably reduced stocking levels over the years, with sheep now down to 1100 (from a high of 10,000 in the mid 19th century). Continuous heavy sheep grazing over 150 years and more, without anything being put back into the ground, has caused a particular, steady decline in the fertility of the soil and feed value of the sward that grows on it; farming practices that include no ploughing and poaching with heavy tractors or stock in wet conditions have further damaged the soil. The Estate’s new plans puts the reduction of the negative impact of grazers at the top of its action plan.
After supper, Professor Nigel Leask, Regius Chair of English Language and Literature at Glasgow University, and Glasgow and Morvern-based playwright Isla Robertson presented Soil Cultures, an anthology of readings, art and music about soil: cultural, literary and philosophical reflections that were read by various Trustees of ART and professional actor James Rottger.
We heard Australian origin myths, extracts from Virgil and Ovid, prose by Dr Johnson, Frank Fraser Darling, Reay Clark, Callum McLean, Tim Dee and Faith Raven; poetry by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Norman MacCaig, Sorley Maclean, Seamus Heaney and Derick Thomson (in Gaelic and in translation); we saw pictures of cave paintings, footprints in soil terrestrial and lunar, ceramics and art work across centuries; and we ended humming happily along to Flanders and Swann’s masterwork The Hippopotamus Song (‘mud, mud, glorious mud’… who could resist?)
The readings and images Nigel and Isla had put together with such thought would resonate throughout the weekend, sometimes surfacing quite directly in talks and questions, sometimes simply lying at the back of the mind as thoughts planted in the soil of our imagination.
On Saturday morning ART opens up its proceedings to local residents, neighbours and friends, who are invited to attend the various sessions and stay on for lunch. More chairs were put out, and a good audience heard keynote speaker, ecologist Professor Richard Bardgett from the University of Manchester, talk about why soil matters and how it underlies civilization.
Richard began by putting up a slide of himself as an enthusiastic young student wielding a soil corer, sampling soils during his BSc in soil science at Newcastle University- at the time regarded as an odd choice of university course. “Why on earth did you study soil?” he was asked (a question that does seem to hold within itself the obvious answer). Even back then, he knew that soil mattered, and action needed to be taken.
He drew a line from the early Polynesian settlers in New Zealand who worshipped the soil as the mantle of Mother Earth, to Cleopatra’s edict that the earthworm was sacred, to the Dust Bowl disaster in the US in the 1930s, the catastrophic result of climate change combined with over-cultivation and neglect of the soil. President Roosevelt’s announcement that “the nation that destroys soil destroys itself” has since then become all too clearly true: soil degradation is now a major global problem, with around 30% of soils currently showing signs of degradation, most caused over the last few decades, largely the result of human mismanagement. Richard then posed and answered some basic questions about soil:
What is soil?
• Each soil has its own history, resulting from the interplay of climate, organisms, relief (topography), parent materials (geology) and change over time.
• Soils age from youth to maturity and old age. As they age, they become deeper and more nutrient-poor, in particular becoming deplete in phosphorus. They take a long time to form (10cm over 1000 years on average), but are quickly destroyed.
• Soils are incredibly diverse: estimates suggest that 25% of all living organisms on earth are found in the soil.
Why does soil matter?
Firstly, for food production:
• Nearly all food producing plants grow in soil, which provides nutrients, water and anchorage.
• 95% of food produced relies directly or indirectly on the soil (83% of people in sub-Saharan Africa rely directly on the soil for their food)
The three hallmarks of soil fertility are:
• increasing organic matter, which improves soil structure, helps water retention, and provides food for the organisms that live in soil;
• improving soil structure through the action of soil organisms and roots, which act as engineers of the soil’s physical environment;
• increasing biodiversity – a healthy soil is a living soil (in ‘good heart’)
Secondly, with relation to climate change:
• Soil is the third largest global carbon pool after fossil fuel and the ocean pool. We need to manage it properly.
• Soil carbon stocks might be greater than expected, with large pools of carbon being missed by inventories that only sample the surface soil. Large stocks of carbon are found at depth, meaning that total carbon pools are in some cases as much as three times more than previously estimated.
• Soil carbon content is a balance: input through photosynthesis/organic matter, and output as CO2 into the atmosphere and dissolved organic carbon into water. These are natural processes, but the rate of carbon loss is greatly increased by human intervention when, for example grassland and forest is converted to farming.
• Climate warming can destabilise carbon pools through drying and warming of soils which stimulates carbon breakdown. Soils high in organic matter like peats are particularly sensitive.
Thirdly, soil in cities and urban environments is a significant factor:
• Cities have a surprising area of green space (e.g., Newcastle 71%, Birmingham 63%, London 60%, Liverpool 38%). There is lots of soil in city parks, gardens, sports pitches and road verges.
• In some cities, like New York, surveys show that new soils are being formed through dredged sand, construction material debris and landfill. This can be polluted, but can also be diverse.
• Allotment soils are valuable: studies in some cities show that allotment soils are 32% higher in carbon and 25% higher in nitrogen than nearby arable soil. They are easier to enrich than farm soils with household wastes and composts, and tend to be less compacted. So urban soils have a significant role to play in carbon storage.
• There is great potential to manage soils in cities, through brownfield decontamination and reclamation. Two million cubic metres of soil were cleaned and reclaimed for the London 2012 Olympics, and there are potential brownfield sites all over Europe.
What can we do?
The world’s soils are in a poor state: 33% of land is moderately to highly degraded, with 25-50 billion tons of topsoil lost every year to erosion. These cannot be replaced. We are also losing soil biological diversity as a result of human activities, likely at similar rate as we are losing other species aboveground.
However, soil is rising up the scientific and political agenda. There are solutions: degraded soils are remarkably resilient and can be recovered.
• Plant diversity and root traits enhance soil carbon supply. With a greater variety of roots, soils build organic matter and recover more quickly from climate shocks like droughts.
• We need greater scientific and political awareness of the importance of soil.
• New science can help – we probably have the knowledge now to make a difference.
• Soil health needs to be embedded in all future land use decisions.
• Soil should be seen as an investment: part of the ‘business premises’ of a farm, to be protected and cared for.
• Civilization has its roots in the soil, and without soil there will be no future life.
There were plenty of questions:
Q: Is it true, or simply a narrative reinforced by repetition, that we only have 70 harvests left in our soil.
A: This figure is probably extrapolated from the UN calculation based on the amount of land being lost to agriculture, which is certainly rapid in some parts of the world. However, Richard prefers positive messages about the importance and value of soil rather than scare tactics.
Q: Is there enough material to add to agricultural land?
A: It varies on the organic matter available, and efficient use of the soil. Measures are being put in place, e.g. no-till, mixed cropping and farming, but we need to remember that there are often historic and cultural reasons why people manage soil in certain ways.
Q: To what extent can pollutants in urban soils be dealt with?
A: Big challenge: these soils are sometimes cocktails of pollutants. Biotechnology can deal with some, but this is costly – e.g. on the Olympic site, a heating technique was used.
Q: How do we know soils age?
A: We’ve been to places where there has been no human activity at all and found this to be true; soil ageing is a natural process that occurs over timescales of thousands to millions of years, and it is only reset by a major disturbances or geological events like a volcano. Old age in soil is called “retrogressive succession.”
Q: What is the message for policy makers?
A: Financial frameworks and incentives are needed: we need to change the way we value land (reminding us of the Native American proverb we heard on Friday evening). There are currently no soil science departments in UK universities - we need to get people interested and actively researching soil and its sustainable management.
Q: What is the role of animals grazing in soil degradation? Is there a balance to be struck?
A: Overgrazing is a major cause of degradation. Reducing grazing pressures, or in some cases excluding them for very damaged land, followed by good management is the key.
Q: To what extent will evolving soil science impact on our understanding of carbon issues?
A: There is much work being done now on soil carbon sequestration: we need to explore measures to increase the capture of carbon from the atmosphere, and transfer it to more stable stores in soil, that are not being broken down and released back into the atmosphere. We know how to get carbon into the soil – now we need to focus on how to keep it in.
The second part of the morning was taken up with three different approaches to the question of soil solutions for the future.
Soil scientist, Professor Colin Campbell, Chief Executive of Scotland’s James Hutton Institute posed the challenging question, ‘What if soil is too valuable to grow food?’
Our planet is a closed system. We face a population crisis and a water crisis, with 50% increase in demand for food and energy and 30% demand for water by 2030. We need about 120 million more hectares to feed developing countries. But we also need social solutions to tackle problems like obesity. We live on a hungry planet. Overconsumption is a huge problem, yet in the UK food banks proliferate. We need more constructive ways to help people in need.
He then gave a memorable demonstration:
Holding up an apple, representing the planet, he asked a volunteer from the audience to cut it into 4 quarters, and discard three of them. These three represented water, the remaining quarter land. Cutting that remaining quarter in half again, he discarded one half, which represented uninhabitable land, the remaining half was habitable. Cutting that half into four more quarters he discarded three as unproductive land, leaving one fourth productive.
He finally asked the volunteer to peel the tiny remaining piece of apple – that peel, or to be even more accurate, the wax on the peel, represented the soil we have available to us. It is a very limited resource.
According to Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil, ‘in future we will grow food in a vertical factory building… controlled by artificial intelligence, which recycles all of the nutrients so there’s no environmental impact at all.’
Large companies are investing millions in research into Vertical Farming (IKEA has a system in Dubai). We clearly need it, but there are challenges, particularly in terms of energy costs and the need for tight environmental control.
IGS, an Agritech innovator, has come up with a system that uses less power and drastically reduces water wastage, eliminates the use of pesticides and cuts down on food miles.
This system is currently being trialled as Scotland’s first vertical farm at Invergowrie, in partnership with the James Hutton Institute. It has:
• LED lights
• smart sensors for plant growth
• a smart energy management system
• a robotic work force; and
• a plant breeding programme to produce new varieties for the future
Colin played a video of the farm in which advanced light technology is used to influence flavour, storage and nutrient levels in the plants.
Is this the future? Colin gave a number of persuasive reasons why it should be:
• Growing locally: saves on storage and transport costs, saving food miles. It increases food security and reduces dependence on imports. Production is 365 days a year, farm to fork.
• Better quality: product appearance and nutritional qualities are improved, and the need for pesticides are eliminated.
• Saving natural resources: derelict land could be used for factories; water consumption is reduced by up to 90%
• Declining costs: production can be matched to consumer demand, tie in with weather conditions. Integrated automation reduces labour costs.
There are a number of implications for field agriculture:
• Speed breeding: faster development of new varieties for a future climate
• Mass propagation of field crops using less pesticide in the field
• New storage technologies, less storage
• The opportunity to retrofit into glasshouses and polytunnels a system of in-field light conditioning.
Colin assured his audience: “It all sounds a bit fantastic, but it is genuinely all possible.”
He added that Vertical Farming is particularly beneficial to Scotland, which has many remote areas, and enjoys an abundance of natural assets like water and renewable energy.
He then posed a final big question: Who is going to own Vertical Farming in the future? Big companies or local communities?
Craig Sams, co-founder and Executive Chairman of Carbon Gold, and founder of Green & Black’s chocolate, then talked about Carbon Farming and Biochar to Reverse Climate Change.
Craig began by quoting Joni Mitchell’s lyrics:
“We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year-old carbon
And we got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.”
And he pointed out that our bodies contain carbon: about one ton of it in the hall we were occupying. Carbon is everywhere, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible.
Craig’s grandfather’s farm in Nebraska held 110 tons of carbon per acre; by the time of Craig’s birth, this had gone down to 10 tons. He then put up a photo of his mother and grandmother in dresses made of flour sacks – a graphic illustration of the difference between his grandfather’s wastefulness and his grandmother’s frugality. As the poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry said: “We didn’t know what we were doing because we didn’t know what we were undoing.”
Craig paid tribute to organic farming pioneer Eve Balfour, who recognised the connection between the vitality of soil and the vitality of humans in her 1943 book ‘The Living Soil’. Craig’s own connection to vital soil began with opening a restaurant called Seed in 1967, and setting up Harmony Foods, incorporating macrobiotic principles.
He outlined his argument for organic farming:
• Industrial farming takes 12 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food, whilst organic farming takes six calories.
• A farmer with a hoe takes one calorie of their own energy to produce 20 calories of food
He was clear about what we should do now:
• Stop using peat: a peat bog is worth more untouched than exploited. There are alternatives in the form of wood chip compost. Forests should be restored;
• Stop burning food in the form of palm oil or corn ethanol;
• Stop building in steel and concrete, and use glulam wood technology instead; and
• Stop burning wood, and instead turn it into biochar: charcoal to put back in the ground.
Biochar as a soil improver has many advantages:
• It increases microbiological populations
• Reduces fertiliser use
• Helps soil retain moisture
• Improves soil structure
• Locks up carbon for at least 1000 years
Craig’s company Carbon Gold works with organisations like The Woodland Trust, as well as large commercial companies to enrich and improve soil health. Biochar has been effective in improving tree health.
He believes organisations and companies are now beginning to understand the importance of soil in offsetting our carbon footprint.
He pinpointed four tools for the removal of greenhouse gases:
He finished by pointing out that carbon is capital. Carbon should be seen as a market: if you capture carbon you should get paid. Thus a price is set on carbon removal from the atmosphere; this would have a huge effect on ecological and economic thinking.
Craig was followed by Clementine Sandison, artist and educator, who currently works as Farming and Land Use Manager for the Soil Association Scotland. She showed a film made last summer for the Soil Association about tall grass grazing, also known as mob grazing, in which she talked to Scottish farmers about their experiences of trialling mob grazing. Her presentation was entitled ‘Regenerative Grazing: Can Cows Improve our Soils?’, another challenging thought injected into the weekend.
The practice of tall grass grazing potentially represents a big change in thinking for farmers and growers: “Some people think we’re a bit nuts,” Clem admitted. However, there are many advantages:
• Mob grazing is about short duration of grazing and long period of land recovery; it gives pasture chance to recover by giving time for grass roots to regenerate and organic matter to build up the soil
• It benefits the cattle, as long grasses contain more nutrients
• It is a way of transferring to organic farming
• It extends grazing season and means cows need less time in sheds over winter
• Longer grass also means more diversity of wild life
There are challenges including water supply. Working closely on trials with a group of innovative farmers, the project is now looking at whether changing grazing practices can improve soil. Cows get a bad press due to the methane they produce, but it is possible they can be viewed as part of a sustainable grazing cycle that improves soil health. Growing evidence suggests that what is bad for the environment, for animals and for our health is specific farming practices which might include the spread of mega-dairies, with cows inside being fed antibiotics. This Soil Association research is showing the importance of re-establishing a more balanced relationship between grasses and animals which has wider environmental benefits.
Clem raised some interesting points for discussion:
• Photosynthesis can be improved through multi-species crops and managed grazing, but holistic planned grazing requires care and observation, trial and error – something many farmers will be wary of.
• Do we want a land-sharing or a land-sparing approach? Land-sparing is attractive to agriculture and policy-makers; land-sharing is favoured by organic and ecological groups.
• Rewilding, a current hot topic, involves high-input farming; Clem’s interest is in low-impact ecology
• There’s a need for a change in mindset, and for collaboration: the farmers Clem is working with use WhatsApp to communicate their experiences, concerns and results.
• Peer-to-peer knowledge is better than top-down advice (which usually involves buying something!)
Clem finished by saying that holistically managed pastures could be the solution to some of the problems this weekend is addressing: all that’s needed is sunlight, rain, animals, plants and human creativity.
The Q&A session at the end of the morning was lively. Some of the topics included:
• how intelligent growth systems like Vertical Farming and materials like biochar can work together with other systems;
• the limit to the amount of biochar in soil (after 15 – 20% it becomes counter-productive);
• the potential for making biochar ourselves rather than buying commercially;
• the ongoing debates between land-sparing and land-sharing policies;
• animal welfare as an element of mob grazing, and the benefit to trees;
• the issues around the management of calving in a mob grazing system and the need for individual farm solutions, e.g. a sacrificial field for lambing or calving; and
• how hill grazing can be effectively incorporated into holistic grazing (the answer from Clem was to join the trials and find out!).
The weather stayed (fairly) clement, and four groups each set off on a different expedition. Everyone came together after tea for feedback on these excursions.
Lochaline Primary School
Soil scientist with the James Hutton Institute Dr. Matt Aitkenhead (who had actually attended Lochaline Primary School himself for a year) took a small group to the school, where 8 children and three adults had brought along samples of soil from different places around the village. After everyone smelled, touched (and, for one or two brave souls, tasted) the soil, Matt talked about its composition and source, then led everyone out for some practical digging and experimenting. A good time was had by all, and the children were completely engaged in their soil explorations.
This group, led by Chris Thomas, travelled through geological time looking at what Chris described as a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle of which only about 10 pieces were available. They started at the Estate hydro schemes, taking in the Archimedes Screw and the dam, from where they went on to see the rocks of the Moine supergroup, laid down 1000 million years ago, and the huge variety of other rocks described in Chris’s Friday evening presentation. They also saw evidence of the field structures Jennie had described in her talk.
Dennis Overton, Chair of Ardtornish Estate and Alan Kennedy, Ardtornish General Manager, took a group to the north eastern edge of the Estate to walk through a peatland restoration and planting project: something that aims to integrate two important ways of storing carbon. 180 hectares have been fenced, to protect from grazing, and 130 hectares were planted over a period of 6 – 8 weeks. The visit was led by Alasdair Firth, a local consultant ecologist who has worked as advisor on the project with the Estate. The group heard about the need for specialist skills to plant in peatland, including contractors, and for more education in schools and the industry around peat and carbon management.
The fourth group visited Lochaline Allotments and heard from Lesley Jones about the challenges of creating them – money was raised from the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund. Raised beds have been created on soil enriched with chicken and horse manure and a good deal of seaweed. The allotments are a fantastic community resource, and include a community cabin, an incubator for baby turkeys, solar-powered water pump and a village compost heap. A clay pizza oven is being built.
After tea, there was a session called Peat Stories, in which two contemporary visual artists presented their experiences of working on projects involving peat.
Glasgow artist and textile specialist Deirdre Nelson, on her third visit to an ART weekend, talked about her involvement in Cape Farewell’s Sexy Peat Project (a name that was ultimately to cause problems) on Lewis. (Note about Cape Farewell: In 2001 the artist David Buckland created the Cape Farewell project to instigate a cultural response to the climate challenge. In 2011 Cape Farewell developed the Sea Change project here in Scotland. You can read more about the work here: https://capefarewell.com/latest/projects/sea-change.html)
Keen to disprove the opinion of one local that the peat bog was “miles and miles of bugger all,” Deirdre spent several weeks with different members of the local community learning to read the peat landscape by walking barefoot across the peat, taking photographs of what lay under her feet and around her, mapping the colours and textures of the land, spending time in a shieling, hearing about the emotional trauma of the time of ‘flitting’ when the village was cleared.
Her research led to the creation of a peatland colour palette for wallpaper featuring the peatland animals and plants; tweeds beautifully embroidered with bog plants and flowers, and socks with local wool. She’s ended up with a collection she calls ‘Shieling chic’: as some members of the audience were quick to point out, a range that has definite commercial potential! The usual output and legacy of Deirdre’s community residencies is an exhibition to stimulate further local discussion (see here for other examples: https://www.deirdre-nelson.co.uk). However, this was not possible on this occasion as there is a different meaning that attaches to the sound ‘peat’ in Gaelic which, when attached to the word ‘sexy’ meant the exhibition wasn’t shown on Lewis!
Deirdre finished with a quote from American philosopher and ecologist Aldo Leopold:
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we can begin to love and respect it.”
Then sculptor Hannah Imlach, who was a 2017 resident artist at the RSPB-led peat restoration project at Forsinard in the Flow Country, talked about her work there.
Hannah is passionate about how artists can engage with sites of environmental and ecological importance. In the Flows to the Future project she was commissioned to make artwork inspired by peatland ecology and renewal on the Flow Country, which has been hugely damaged by commercial forestry. She became increasingly fascinated by sphagnum moss and its role in the regeneration and restoration of the water cycle in the bog, as well as by the scientific instruments, both contemporary and past, used to measure this.
She incorporated the forms of seeds, mosses and microflora into the construction of sculptures referencing various scientific instruments, which she then placed in the landscape which had inspired them. A lovely film gave a sense of just how beautiful they were in situ. Hannah’s work can be seen at: https://hannahimlach.com
Questions and discussions stimulated by both artists’ presentations ranged over the healing qualities of sphagnum; the challenges of reconciling tradition (peat cutting) with environmental protection; the need to provide ways for people actually to see and appreciate the peat bogs, which are often a long way from population centres (one of the good reasons for commissioning artists to make work that will travel); the importance of peat bogs in the preservation of past customs (e.g. burials) and the making of textiles.
Dr Paul Adderley from Stirling University talked about Soils and Culture: his research into how the historical record within our soils can help us understand human history and its relationship to the environment.
Paul stressed the importance of soil being recognised as a repository of cultural heritage, and brought a global perspective to the subject, citing examples from Ethiopia and Iceland to look at landscapes of settlement, evidences of past soil management, and the use of earth as building material.
Landscapes of settlement
Paul gave some fascinating detail about his work in two Ethiopian field sites, where he researched the relationship between climate change, land clearing and soil management, and the development trajectories of early civilizations in the Tigray highlands.
He outlined how typically small settlements grow, through specialised farming activities and communication with other settlements, into larger ones. The landscape itself, with the agency of individuals and groups as further contributing elements, determines how these changes are made, especially by virtue of its limiting characteristics, particularly soil fertility.
Today, soil analyses considering isotopic variations, micromorphology and charcoal provide evidence for past changes in rainfall, temperature and land clearance practices using fire.
Paul then moved to another extreme in global terms: the Norse landnám in the North Atlantic.
Here, the ninth-century Norwegians settling in Iceland would have typically used pigs to clear wooded areas, and used geese as well as sheep and cattle for food and grazing. They would have established a dairy and sheep-based system, and built a turf longhouse in the centre of the settlement. Around it would have been a home field area with shieling area and hill grazing on more remote lands.
Paul’s research here focussed on the Svalbard Estate, a farm in constant production since it was settled by Norse farmers around AD 1000. He was looking in particular at the year-to-year changes in weather, which are more influential on decision making by farmers regarding soil and land management than long-term trends in climate that may occur across the time frame of multiple human generations: “Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.”
Soil-based evidence from analyses suggests that the Norse settlers carefully managed the organic matter they added to the soil to aid water retention, yet not add too much as this would prolong the winter freeze, and that this was in response to fluctuating weather conditions.
Paul’s final theme was to consider the importance of soil as a building material. Today, 60% of the world’s population live in some form of earth building. Examples past and present include turf-roofed black houses on Lewis, Norse longhouses in Iceland and Greenland, subterranean houses in North Africa or modern cob extensions in Britain. Classic earth materials are cob, rammed earth and adobe bricks. In Louisiana and parts of Texas in the USA a 18th and 19th Century technique known as bousillage combines materials and building styles from European settlers, local Caddo Indians and slaves of west African origin.
The heritage value of earth buildings depends on many factors, including their setting in the landscape. They can be compromised by bad repairs resulting from a loss of skills (e.g. the Alhambra Palace in Spain), or by modern replacement of inappropriate materials including several examples in sub-Saharan Africa. There is increasing emphasis placed in policy and practice guidelines by heritage conservation agencies on the notion of ‘place’ and, therefore, local sourcing of repair materials.
Turning to Scotland, Paul pointed out that the former ubiquity of earth buildings throughout Scotland is actually hidden either by brick encasements or replacement of these building at the time of the Improvement movement. There is now a more sympathetic approach to the remaining earth buildings, but many remain at risk, including Robert Burns’ cottage in Alloway, for which an appeal is underway for funds to repair and renovate.
Questions afterwards to Paul included:
Q: Ethiopia has just announced the planting of 4 billion trees. Is this a good idea?
A: It’s worrying – there isn’t the depth of soil in some places; and if they plant eucalyptus this is bad news for water-use.
Q: Is there a problem of shortage of materials for repair and construction of traditional buildings like mosques?
A: Yes. For example the Agadez mosque, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an example of where there has to be an ongoing maintenance plan taking into account the increasing size and population of the city which makes mud unavailable and mud masons scarce. Young people aren’t taking up the skills. As part of a major heritage project involving Paul and colleagues at the University of Chicago, the city is hoping to build a heritage centre to raise awareness and train new mud masons.
Prof Richard McDowell was unable to give his programmed presentation on experiences in New Zealand. Instead this presentation was ably delivered by senior Scottish agricultural research scientist Professor Maggie Gill, a regular contributor to previous ART weekends including a talk two years ago about the links between Scotland and New Zealand.
The main points of Richard’s argument were:
• When New Zealand withdrew farming subsidies overnight in 1987, the numbers of sheep decreased, whilst dairy production hugely increased.
• This move from sheep to dairy caused significant issues, including:
o Excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) in water
o Algal growth
o Risk of bacterial contamination
o Cost of cleaning up water for human use
o Changing colour of water and potential negative impact on tourism
o The need to keep cows away from water courses.
• Through soil management they have managed some improvement of the land. The New Zealand government has become better at producing policies and guidelines. One of the problems of the 1987 removal of subsidies was that there were no policies in place.
• NZ’s land use ethos must shift from a narrow focus on productive capability to a comprehensive assessment of long-term suitability.
• Right programmes in the right place deliver improvement in outcomes: actions like the mitigation of manure, more fencing-off, targeting strategies to Critical Source Areas could all help.
• Adapt the use to the land, not the land to the use.
Asked about what, with hindsight, she thought the NZ government should have done differently, Maggie listed modelling, risk analysis and also asking people how much extra they would pay to get their food from a clean green source; ie. putting in place policies that would nudge people in the right direction, rather than reducing subsidies overnight.
Andrew Midgley, Environmental and Land Use Policy Manager at NFU Scotland, then talked about farmers’ approaches to soil health.
He pointed out that the word ‘subsidies’ has now been replaced by ‘farm support’ (others over the weekend suggested that ‘incentives’ might be a good word).
There is often a presupposition that farmers are causing environmental harm. There will be instances, but the vast majority see soil health as a key part of their businesses. It is core.
However, it is a complicated picture. There is a spectrum of farmers: organic, non-organic, hill farmers, lowland farmers, intensive, extensive etc. They all have different imperatives.
There is also market-driven pressure on farmers from the demand for cheap food. This makes it difficult for struggling farmers to put soil health at the top of their concerns.
When facing criticism, the farming industry tends to close ranks like a shoal of fish facing a threat.
How the NFUS changes minds and behaviours is crucial, and needs to be subtle. Context is all: most people, farmers included, want to have their perspective acknowledged. Most would be happy to try new things, but if they feel they are being blamed for a problem, and as a consequence face more regulation, it won’t be easy to get them to embrace change.
We need to recognise that we have a collective challenge and that farmers are part of finding a solution.
Lynn Cassells was due to give a presentation about the experience at Lynbreck Croft in the Cairngorms, but her place was taken by Bill Barron, CEO of the Crofting Commission.
Bill said he spends 95% of his time working on regulation and land law, and how good it was to hear people talking positively about on-the-ground experiences. Crofting has been, and continues to be, significant for Scotland: it has impacted on population retention in remote rural communities, and crofters do a lot of things right in terms of small scale agriculture.
The government is currently involved in a 2-phase reform of crofting legislation, to remove some of the current glitches and to initiate a more fundamental conversation about the future.
Bill pointed to Saturday morning’s talks by Colin, Craig and Clem about future solutions for soil health and food production as the weekend’s positive messages, and emphasised that we now need to ask how we can make sure that good things are done rather than bad.
How do you get 15000 crofters to do agriculture better rather than worse?
He suggested there are 4 elements to the answer:
• Brute force – i.e. Government can pass laws. But it’s essential that government is seen to be fair in implementation of rules and regulations
• Money - i.e. Government can tax and spend, either directly or through incentivization/subsidy. But the government needs to be economic with how the money is used
• Communication: different ways of communicating are needed to reach as many people as possible
• Values: we need to discuss and decide how we value what we value, and what value we put on the future compared to the present.
Alasdair Reid, Scottish Parliament Information Centre: Reflections
Alasdair, who is currently advising the Scottish Parliament on the policy and technical aspects of the Climate Change Bill, summarised the key points that emerged for him from the weekend’s presentations:
• How closely communities are connected to their soils, and how they are formed and change with changing conditions
• The unexpected role of urban soils
• How important it is to get the number-crunching science right
• That we should challenge a sentimental relationship with soils through new methods of food production
• The significant role of visionary entrepreneurship
• How complex and difficult it can be to challenge assumptions and bring about change
• Support for people trying things out, licence to experiment
• Language matters, and art is important in finding ways to communicate
• Change: Going back to an image we saw on the first evening, of the Hindu goddess Parvati rising from the soil, he quoted the sage Patanjali words that change is inevitable, as it links the familiar with the unknown.
In the final plenary session the following comments were made by participants:
• We know enough now to make a difference.
• We should think in terms of the art of the possible. Simple things can be done: e.g. simple fencing of land to keep cattle away from water courses, claiming urban land for growing, etc.
• We need leadership in terms of policy, but compulsory measures have all too often failed. We need not only political leaders, but leaders of the sector. We need to work out how to encourage business and industry to make changes that might have the effect of damaging their profit in the short term without heavy-handed legislation.
• Scotland is a good place to effect change, but we need good communication to take people with us
• Going back to the Native American proverb quoted on Friday evening, we must value the future. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act in Wales (passed in 2015) may be useful in looking at land legislation for the future.
• Articulating values clearly helps in going forward. Wellbeing values must be part of this.
• We have to take risks – and accept that some things will fail.
• Scale is important – there’s a difference between digging peat locally to keep warm and extracting it on a large scale for garden centres
• The power of money: if we taxed carbon, we’d never extract another metre of peat
• There is some evidence of large companies changing: natural capital accounting and impact investment are fast-growing elements of corporate life. We need to increase public awareness of them.
• We must reach out to young people: their generation is taking it seriously. But we can’t wait for future generations to solve our problems. We only have ten years to sort out the climate crisis. We need to accelerate the good that’s being done. We need to talk about what changes we can make today.
Priscilla Gordon Duff drew the weekend to a close by recalling Andrew Raven’s belief in linking people, policy and land; and she quoted ART’s founding chairman, the late Simon Pepper, who spoke of the weekends’ ‘alchemy value.’ This had been a weekend of connection and alchemy: and one which had demonstrated not just what we needed to do, but a huge desire for exploring how we do it. She brought the event full circle by reminding us of the quote from Ovid we heard on the first evening: “Our native soil draws all of us by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.”