Development of soil health benchmarks for managed and semi-natural landscapes

Feeney, Christopher J. ORCID:; Robinson, David A. ORCID:; Keith, Aidan M. ORCID:; Vigier, Audric ORCID:; Bentley, Laura ORCID:; Smith, Richard P.; Garbutt, Angus ORCID:; Maskell, Lindsay C. ORCID:; Norton, Lisa ORCID:; Wood, Claire M. ORCID:; Cosby, B. Jack ORCID:; Emmett, Bridget A. ORCID: 2023 Development of soil health benchmarks for managed and semi-natural landscapes. Science of the Total Environment, 886, 163973. 13, pp.

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Efforts to improve soil health require that target values of key soil properties are established. No agreed targets exist but providing population data as benchmarks is a useful step to standardise soil health comparison between landscapes. We exploited nationally representative topsoil (0–15 cm) measurements to derive soil health benchmarks for managed and semi-natural environments across Great Britain. In total, 4587 soil organic matter (SOM), 3860 pH, 2908 bulk density (BD), and 465 earthworm abundance (EA) datapoints were used. As soil properties are sensitive to site-specific characteristics, data were stratified by habitat, soil type, and mean annual precipitation, with benchmarks defined as the middle 80 % of values in each distribution – yielding 135 benchmarks. BD and pH decreased with land management intensity (agriculture > semi-natural grasslands > woodlands > heathlands > wetlands), and vice versa for SOM and EA. Normalising benchmark ranges by medians revealed soil health indicator benchmark widths increased in the order: pH < BD < SOM < EA, while width increased with decreasing land management intensity. Arable and horticulture and improved grassland exhibited narrow benchmarks for SOM, pH and BD, yet the widest EA benchmark, suggesting additional drivers impact EA patterns. Upland wetlands had the widest BD benchmarks, important when determining carbon stocks. East Anglia currently possesses the largest proportions of atypical soils, including below typical SOM (19.2 %), above typical BD (17.4 %) and pH (39.1 %), and the smallest proportions of above typical SOM (2.4 %), and below typical BD (5.8 %) and pH (2.3 %). This is found even after land use, soil type and rainfall have been considered, underscoring how urgently soil health should be addressed here. Our benchmarking framework allows landowners to compare where their measured soil health indicators fall within expected ranges and is applicable to other biomes, national and multinational contexts.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
UKCEH and CEH Sections/Science Areas: Atmospheric Chemistry and Effects (Science Area 2017-)
Soils and Land Use (Science Area 2017-)
ISSN: 0048-9697
Additional Information. Not used in RCUK Gateway to Research.: Open Access paper - full text available via Official URL link.
Additional Keywords: soil organic matter, pH, bulk density, earthworm abundance, ecosystem services, land use
NORA Subject Terms: Ecology and Environment
Agriculture and Soil Science
Date made live: 16 May 2023 15:05 +0 (UTC)

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