Written evidence submitted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)(SH0080)


This is a joint Defra, Welsh Government and DAERA written evidence submission.




  1. How can the Government measure progress towards its goal of making all soils sustainably managed by 2030? What are the challenges in gathering data to measure soil health how can these barriers be overcome?



1.1             Soil monitoring is currently being undertaken within the terrestrial Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment (tNCEA) programme, yielding valuable new data to aid improved understanding of national soil condition. The tNCEA is a three year programme, aided by substantial new government investment, setting up long-term monitoring capability at a national/regional level. It will comprehensively assess the extent, condition, and location of England’s Natural Capital assets and track change over time. The immediate phase will complete two years of the five years needed for a soil health baseline, with new capital investment needed to complete the baseline and prioritisation of future funding for the longer-term monitoring aspect. This work will also allow the monetisation of the services that this natural capital asset provides and its contribution to economic growth.


1.2             A healthy soil indicator is being developed as one of the 66 indicators in the Outcome Indicator Framework of the 25YEP, which are used to track environmental change. The healthy soil indicator will help to make sure data is monitored and assessed in a consistent way. We currently plan for the healthy soil indicator to be available, through initial phases, within 18 months. A progress report for the 25 Year Environment Plan was published in July 2022[1].


1.3             We are developing a voluntary measuring and monitoring scheme for soil structure, including developing methodology that will support farmers and land managers to establish their own soil health baseline that will enable them to plan to appropriately manage and track the health of their soil. The possibility to deliver the soil structure scheme will be considered in the feasibility studies that tNCEA plan to undertake with the citizen science community to develop a regional approach to increasing the value of citizen science. Farmers and land managers will have a pivotal role in adopting appropriate management practices and supporting knowledge sharing and peer to peer learning, delivering benefits for soil health.


1.4             To successfully implement long-term soil health monitoring it is important to achieve a consensus on appropriate classification framework and methodologies. It is also important for agreement on consistent language and definitions for soil to be used to ensure a shared understanding of our soil policy goals and expected outcomes.



Devolved Administrations:


1.5             In Northern Ireland (NI), the development of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Soil Nutrient Health Scheme[2] (SNHS) has sought to build a robust evidence database on NI soil nutrient and carbon status on which to base future soil health interventions either at a macro or micro/local level.


1.6             Challenges running a scheme of this operational complexity include resourcing both at operational level by contractors and project management, predicting farmer uptake which has been resolved to date by linking future payments to participation in the SNHS and providing re-assurance that individual farm level nutrient results will not be used for enforcement or regulatory purposes.


1.7             The SNHS opened in May 2022 and is due to conclude in 2027. It is a whole farm approach and was not deemed suitable for a farmer to self-collect their own samples.


1.8             Soil is identified by the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 as a natural resource that requires Natural Resources Wales to pursue its sustainable management. Soil is a valuable resource underpinning the delivery of ecosystem goods and services which support every aspect of the natural and built environment on which well-being goals depend.


1.9             In 2022, the Welsh Government published a Review of Welsh Soil Evidence detailing its evidence base, evidence gaps and opportunities[3]. A soil policy statement for Wales, informed by the evidence review, is currently being prepared.  The statement will provide a recognised soil policy which soil activities and actions will fall within. As a starting point, the statement will focus on the agricultural sector as this constitutes 90% of the land area in Wales. It is the ambition that soils in other land use sectors could be included in the future.


1.10         It is important to recognise Welsh specific soil issues. In 2019, the Welsh Government published a paper on Welsh Soil Issues in Context[4], which separated out Welsh specific issues from England and Wales / UK combined. Research on Soil Formation Rates in Wales[5] in 2021 also helped with better understanding the balance between soil erosion and formation, especially in grasslands. 


1.11         The 2022 Soil Evidence Review helped to identify specific soil / climate / farm enterprise combinations which are considered as higher or lower risk areas to soil in Wales. This will help to focus interventions and support where they are needed most. Knowledge exchange and monitoring are important parts of this.



  1. Do current regulations ensure that all landowners/land managers maintain and/or improve soil health? If not, how should they be improved?


2.1             There is no dedicated legislation that covers all soil in England. There is both direct legislation (specifically related to soil) and indirect legislation which also covers soil.


2.2             The Agriculture Act 2020 allowed us to introduce our environmental land management schemes, including the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme in England that rewards farmers and land managers who sign up for the scheme for carrying out a sustainable approach to farm and soil management.



  1. Will the standards under Environmental Land Management schemes have sufficient ambition and flexibility to restore soils across different types of agricultural land?  What are the threats and opportunities for soil health as ELMs are introduced? 


3.1             Yes. In England, we are introducing three new schemes that reward environmental benefits, including for soil health: the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), Landscape Recovery and an enhanced version of Countryside Stewardship (formally referred to as Local Nature Recovery). The schemes are being developed so that there is an offer for all farm types. Each scheme will be voluntary for farmers – it will be for them to decide what the right combination of actions is for their particular setting. 


3.2             The SFI scheme pays farmers for actions they take (going beyond regulatory requirements) to manage their land in an environmentally sustainable way. 


3.3             In June 2022, the arable and horticultural soils and the improved grassland soils standards were opened to farmers. Through these standards farmers are being rewarded for actions that protect the soil from erosion and enable the plants and organisms that live in the soil to function effectively. This includes the introduction of herbal leys and the use of grass-legume mixtures or cover crops. The standards will also require farmers to test for soil organic matter and, under the arable and horticultural soils standard, add organic matter to their soil.


3.4             These soil standards will contribute to increasing sustainably managed soil within agriculture.


3.5             Limitations associated with the introduction of the environmental land management schemes as far as soil is concerned are the limited information of the soil condition and the subsequent economic information of costs and benefits associated with different regenerative measures. Following the improvement in data for soil health the next step is to focus on identifying the most costs effective solutions to deliver our ambition.



5.              What does UK Government need to do to tackle other stressors on soil health such as soil contamination? 



5.1             In 2023, we will begin development of a Soil Re-use and Storage Depot Scheme. This will help prevent soil that would otherwise be classified as waste going to landfill and encourage reuse of soil. This circular economy approach to soil management will reduce costs in the construction industry, remove barriers to brownfield development, and create jobs in the green economy.


Contaminated Land


5.2              We are still facing pollution from our industrial heritage, such as metal mines abandoned from the 1800s, and contamination from former factories and landfills. Contaminated soil can reduce the ability of soil to perform its functions, and impacting health, the environment and the economy. Addressing contaminated soil supports several 25YEP goals including Clean and Plentiful Water, Reducing the Risks of Harm from Environmental Hazards, Managing Exposure to Chemicals and Mitigating and Adapting to Climate Change. 


5.3              To address soil affected by contamination, Part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 provides for local authorities with statutory powers to inspect and seek remediation of potential contaminated sites. We are also developing non-regulatory measures, including:



February 2023


[1] 25 Year Environment Plan Progress Report: April 2021 to March 2022

[2] DAERA Soil Nutrient Health Scheme

[3] Review of Welsh soil evidence

[4] Assessment of Welsh Soil Issues in Context

[5] Soil Formation Rates Scoping Study