News & Updates: Spring 2021

We hope everyone is well and enjoying the easing of lockdown restrictions. As a small, nimble organisation we continue to be well-placed to navigate these complicated times. The first quarter of the year has been characteristically busy and productive, as we see an increasing amount of interest around soil health across government and industries and continue to successfully keep projects and lobbying work up to pace.

1. Soil Structure Target

In January 2021, Defra commissioned the SSA to facilitate expert consultation on the development of an informal soil structure target for England. To facilitate this, we hosted a specialist workshop attended by a representative group of experts from science and academia alongside those with practical soils knowledge from the farming, urban development, conservation land and woodland contexts.

The workshop established consensus on the proposed metrics for measuring soil structure, identified where additional considerations were needed and helped provide recommendations and next steps. This will feed into Defra’s aim to establish a standardised methodology for visual soil assessment (including soil organic matter and biology) of surface, topsoil and subsoil, stratified to soil type, land use and climate.

This work has been developed in collaboration with Prof Bridget Emmett (UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) and Dr Richard Smith (Environment Agency) who have extensive practical experience in developing, designing and delivering national and regional soil monitoring programmes and surveys dealing with soil structure.

Though the soil structure target would not be statutory, we see this as a huge step forward in helping to establish a future soil health target for England under the Environment Bill. It will be the first ever soil target for England and as such demonstrates the new and exciting level of leadership for soil by Defra.

2. Soil Carbon

Soil Carbon continues to be an area of focus for us as interest in farming’s contribution to Net Zero and the potential market place for soil carbon sequestration gathers pace. Last year we convened a consortium of leading experts to develop and pilot a UK Farm and Soil Carbon Code that would enable farmers, growers and producers to engage in these markets – based on robust monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) protocols - whilst maintaining food production.

Preliminary work is being conducted by the Global Food Security programme’s Resilient Dairy Landscapes project, and we have sought funding to develop the Code from Defra (alongside Scotland’s Rural College) and the Environment Agency (alongside FWAG). If successful, the first step will be to synthesise evidence to identify the most promising soil carbon interventions, evaluate methods for monitoring and verifying soil carbon outcomes and produce an open-access repository of best practice toolkits, methods and protocols for MRV.

We are also seeking funding for a comparative analysis of international soil carbon standards and protocols and to conduct interviews with the farming and investing communities as the basis for a draft UK Farm Soil Carbon Code. 

3. Sustainable Farming Incentive

Defra has published the outline framework for its Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), the ‘bridge’ between existing farm incentive schemes and the proposed Environmental Land Management policy (ELM) which will come into force in 2024. The scheme will pilot many of the critical elements of ELM, and consists of 8 Standards, including two that are specific to soils - Arable and Horticultural soils and Improved Grassland soils. 

We are in the process of examining the Standards to better understand their implications for soil management and will draft a background note with a view to holding an expert workshop after further detail about the scheme’s implementation becomes available in June.

4. Soil Quality Indicators

We have been working in partnership with our science panel and the National Trust over the past year to develop a framework for evaluating which soil health indicators (SQIs) are best able to provide clear, usable and reliable measurements that show a soil’s ability to deliver specific functions and public goods.

Over the coming months, we will run the framework firstly with the scientific and then with the practitioner community by asking them to identify the critical SQIs and their standard operating procedures for certain outcomes and eliminate those that don’t contribute or are too complicated or costly. We believe that this work will be another step towards the standardisation of approaches to soil health management; helping to build further consensus and create alignment, consistency and common purpose.

5. uksoils

We are delighted to be part of the dynamic uksoils partnership, working alongside UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Earthwatch, University of Sheffield and recently joined by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) to continue to develop the online soils community hub launched by the group at the end of last year.

Uksoils has begun a series of online panels to discuss soil hot topics, Soiltalks, in collaboration with the Soil Care Network. The first, ‘60 Harvests Left: True, False or Missing the Point’, discussed the usefulness of this popular phrase with soil scientist Dan Evans, ecologist Carolina Levis and 2018 Soil farmer of the year Simon Cowell. You can watch or rewatch this talk here. The next SoilTalks will be announced shortly on the uksoils website. You can also stay up to date by following uksoils’ on Twitter.

This spring, uksoils hosted the 30 minutes worm survey, a nationwide farmland soil health assessment. This co-created method to assess earthworm populations was developed by soil scientist Jackie Stroud, member of the uksoils management board. Uksoils hosted the online portal through which participants could upload and share their results.

The uksoils founding group is continually seeking new partners to expand the initiative’s reach and engagement, please do get in touch if you have any comment on the site – or would like to suggest new material.

Explore uksoils
6. Sustainable Urban Soil Health Initiative

Last year, the SSA created the ‘Sustainable Urban Soil Health Initiative’ working group (SUSHI) to develop and promote an up-to-date code of practice for the sustainable use of soils on construction sites and to engage planners, designers and the development industry to become more aware of the many benefits of appropriate and considered soil management.

In April 2021, the group met with Minister Rebecca Pow to discuss the updating of the Defra construction code of practice, we were pleased to see the Minister’s interest and support.

Above: Typical construction site issues - Compaction and waterlogging.

Below left: Stockpiling soils when wet and plastic. Below right: Compaction of subsoils.


At the start of 2021, we met with Minister Rebecca Pow and fellow Defra Minister, Victoria Prentis, to update them on our work and our policy asks. We would like to thank both Ministers for their time and interest, and the support they showed for our work. 

In January 2021 we responded to the EFRA Committee Inquiry on Environmental Land Management (ELM) and the Agricultural Transition. Our response focuses on soil health and how ELM can be designed to contribute to the government’s targets of sustainably managed soils by 2030. Our recommendations are the results of the SSA’s ongoing engagement with its members, Strategic Advisory Board and Science Panel, and specifically a November 2020 multi-stakeholder Workshop on ‘Soil in ELM’.

Read our response to the EFRA Committee Inquiry

We responded to Defra’s Regulatory Review on the 8 Farming Rules for Water where we highlighted why awareness of the rules is low and how the rules can be strengthened. We also sit on an eNGO group that holds regular meetings with Defra to help inform environmental regulatory reform.

Read our response to Defra's Regulatory Review

In February we responded to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Greenhouse Gas Removals call for evidence, which seeks to strengthen the government’s understanding of the role of nature-based solutions, including soils, in greenhouse gas removals (GGRs). The response argues for the creation of a soil farm and carbon code and a thorough investigation of the various elements that underpin this - both scientific and “business" principles.

Read our response the BEIS call for evidence

We responded to the Red Tractor Standards 2021 Review, welcoming the inclusion of the 8 Farming Rules for Water in the standards as a much-needed step towards raising awareness and understanding of the rules throughout the supply chain. Our hope is that this is just the beginning and future standards will go beyond simple compliance to properly embed soil appreciation among farmers, retailers and consumers.

Read our response the Red Tractor Standards Review

Finally, we also responded to the Agriculture (Wales) White Paper which sets out the Welsh Government's intentions for primary legislation and provides the basis of the Welsh Agriculture Bill.

Read our response to the Agriculture (Wales) White Paper

Our executive co-director Ellen Fay and Prof Bridget Emmett of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and member of our science panel were featured in a January BBC Food article dedicated to the importance of soil health at a national and international level. 

Read the BBC article

We are increasingly feeding the soils perspective into the agendas of various organisations and seeking to understand their challenges where soil health is concerned. So far this year has included meetings and collaborations with the Royal Society, Tesco, Rewilding Britain, Pasture for Life, River Action, the River Trust, WWF, ClientEarth and the Interim Environmental Governance Secretariat (the interim body for the Office for Environmental Protection).

We are also very pleased to announce our partnership with the Ecological Continuity Trust (ECT). The ECT is a charitable body/not-for-profit company formed in direct response to the loss of long-term ecological experiments (LTEs) across the UK. Their vision continues to be the development of a strategic network of LTEs that involve genuine ecosystem manipulations in the real world and true replication for statistical purposes. ECT maintains a national register of 33 active LTEs across 30 sites in all four nations of the UK, covering habitats ranging from grassland to woodland to peat bog. Whilst many factors have been experimentally controlled aboveground, the soils at many of these sites have remained undisturbed (apart from occasional sampling) for decades. They represent an important and possibly untapped resource for soil scientists to come and use - a major reason why the SSA and ECT have been in recent dialogue around working together more closely.

Visit the ECT website

We have joined an NGO working group on peat, currently working on a horticultural peat strategy, led by the RSPB and the Wildlife and Countryside Link. Our work to protect peatlands focuses on collaborating with and amplifying the work of sister organisations with a proven track record of lobbying in this area.


We are delighted to have successfully applied for Funding Plus at the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation (EFF), which they provide as capacity building support to help us achieve greater impact. This is the second year we have been able to benefit from this support which we are exceptionally grateful for.

We would also like to thank Yeo Valley who continue to support us and have funded our work for uksoils.

Likewise, we thank The Real Olive Company for their continued support through our ongoing funding partnership, despite the impacts of the pandemic on the retail sector.

We are still in the process of redesigning and updating our website. We hope to be able to share this new layout and information with you in the near future.

We thank you for your continued interest in and support for the SSA and wish you all the very best for the rest of spring and the summer months to come. 

The SSA Team: Ellen, Matt, Anicée, Nev, Kevin and Robert.

To keep up to date with soil news from around the UK and further afield check our events calendar, follow us on Twitter @soilsalliance and watch out for our Week in Soil update, published every Friday morning. Have some news or a soil-related event to share with our community? Email
We'd like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have donated to the SSA. We're extremely grateful for all contributions, large & small.
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