Understanding soil health in the uplands

A group of seven farmers are coming together with researchers in a field lab to get a better understanding of how their management practices have an impact on soil health.

Called the Orton Fells Farm Cluster, the group’s land covers 4,297 acres over a broad spectrum of upland landscape in the Westmorland Dales National Park, part of the wider Yorkshire Dales National Park. The field lab will span a period of 2 years from 2021 and will link with soil research specialists from Lancaster, Bristol and York Universities.

The farmers are keen to not just get a better understanding of their soil health but to find out more about the wider biodiversity and habitats of the area and how they can work to improve them.

Read the latest research updates from the Orton Fells field lab. 

Why soil health is important in the uplands?

Soil health and carbon storage will be an extremely relevant area for farmers as agricultural policy changes. Under the future ELMs scheme, farmers will be likely to have opportunities to access funding for managing their soils for biodiversity, carbon storage and flood mitigation amongst the options offered under ‘public money for public goods’. There are also opportunities to benefit from the creation of ‘ecosystem markets’ in which private investment could fund farmers in managing their land for climate mitigation and carbon offset, helping to bridge gaps in public funding and farm income.

However, there is yet little understanding of how carbon and soil health can be measured and evaluated in the upland and rolling landscapes of the North West. If farmers are to benefit from the potential income streams on offer there is a need to find approaches which are underpinned by research and offer reassurance to farmers, policy makers and investors that land management approaches lead to positive, additive and permanent impacts.

How the field lab will work?

The seven farmers will select sites to enable useful comparisons in management approaches to be made within and between the farms. Farmers will then test and compare a range of methods to measure soil health, including simple visual observations and counts at no cost to farmers, through to more technical measures of soil chemistry, biology and greenhouse gases. They will then develop a toolkit of chosen measures that allow for meaningful, cost-effective monitoring and work with local conservationists on improvements to their management practices.

Why farmers want to understand soil health?

“We are running a fully pasture based beef and lamb enterprise and with the support from this field lab we are looking into ways we can increase the nutritional value we get from the grass without using artificial fertilisers and sprays. We are hoping to begin some form of rotational grazing this summer to ensure we are using our grass optimally. This field lab will really help us identify what is needed and where”. Jenny Bowes, livestock farmer

“We’ve been planting some woodland pasture this year. As part of this field lab we’ve tested the soil before establishment to measure and study the difference the trees will make to soil health and structure. We’ll test again next year and the following year – it will be great to see the results”. Tim Winder, livestock farmer

Get involved in farmer led research

To keep informed of how this field lab and others are progressing sign up and become a member of the Innovative Farmers’ network. Got your own idea for a field lab? Submit it here and we'll pin it on our online pinboard

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