Topsoil Project – Introduction

Topsoil is made up of two local projects (one in Essex and another in Suffolk) part of a wider European collaboration between 26 partners in 5 countries. Our projects are in areas where the land use is predominately arable so we will be working with farmers to help come up with new or improved ways to build on the great work they are already doing around soils and water. We aim to help farmers maintain and improve their soils so they can be more productive and have less impact on the wider environment and to manage water quality and availability within the agricultural landscape.

In Essex, we are working on Layer Brook and Abberton Reservoir near Colchester.

In Suffolk we are working in the Sandlings area looking at ground water quality and availability.

Funding for Topsoil

Topsoil is a collaborative project involving partners throughout Northern Europe from Germany, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and of course the UK. The partnership is looking at various ways to protect the ‘topsoil’ that is vitally important in providing crops for food, biofuel and animal feed, water for drinking and the environment.

Essex and Suffolk Rivers Trust have secured a budget of €220,000 of funding from the European Union (Interreg) as a partner in a three-year project called Topsoil. This means we will receive up to 50% of this total as long as we can find the other 50% from funders in the UK.

We are grateful to our supporters Essex and Suffolk Water, the Suffolk Coasts and Heaths AONB and the Environment Agency for valuable matched funding.

If you or your organisation wishes to support this project, or any of our other work, then please contact us. We urgently need to secure funding for years 2 and 3 of Topsoil so please do get in touch.

Why is topsoil important?

Topsoil is not only a substance to support plant roots is also supplies all the things a plant needs to grow. A well-managed soil will contain water, oxygen, and food (phosphates and nitrates). It is important that soil is not compacted as it will not absorb water effectively or allow any applied nutrients to penetrate the soil. This will result in plant roots being starved of nutrients and water, it will also prevent excess water filtering through the soil and into the groundwater underneath. Water will accumulate on the surface of the soil drowning plants or running off the field taking some soil with it. Compacted soil will also contain less oxygen as the air pockets within the soil structure will be reduced and there will be less oxygen available for plant roots. Management of soils should reduce compaction from heavy machinery, creating the best growing medium for plants that holds everything they need.

If not managed carefully soil can become vulnerable to being washed off fields during heavy rain, ending up deposited in ditches and rivers. Eroded soil carries with it phosphates, nitrates and pesticides added during farming to maximise crop production. Such compounds then become pollutants which damage the ditches, rivers and eventually filter through into groundwater.

Excess nutrients cause poorer water quality and cause algae blooms (increased plant growth in the freshwater environment). Excessive algae use up oxygen in the water damaging habitats for aquatic species.

How does this affect me?

Humans can also be affected. Groundwater and river water is extracted to be used as drinking water. However, if the levels of things like nitrates and pesticides rise above legal limits the water may not be used. Many pesticides and pollutants can be removed by the water treatment process but this is expensive and increases the cost of producing drinking water (and therefore the bills we all pay).Some substances cannot be removed, even with the most advanced treatment processes. Therefore, contaminated water needs to be diluted with uncontaminated water to reduce the levels back below legal limits. Water companies might be able to manage this risk by not abstracting from rivers and groundwater until there has been sufficient rainfall to dilute the contaminated water. However, in dry periods there might not be enough water available, particularly in Essex (one of the driest parts of the UK). In extreme cases the public face restrictions on the amount of water they use in the form of rationing or hosepipe bans.

Why is Topsoil focussing on farmland?

Topsoil aims to help identify fields where soil loss is a problem, or a risk, and then help farmers make changes to keep the soil on their fields. The project is also leading the way in research into new ways of supporting water supplies in areas where it is scarce, such as the Suffolk Sandlings, through better management of soils and groundwater stores.

Building on good farming practices.

Most farmers are proactive in reducing the impact they have on water quality. This includes only adding the amount of nutrients that the soil and crops can absorb and not adding pesticides when wet weather is forecast. They also leave strips of vegetation (buffer strips) along rivers and ditches to stop soil washing off the fields during heavy rain. They manage drainage ditches so that the soil that washes into them stays in them and does not wash downstream into the local river. Cleaning farm equipment in designated areas so any pesticides, etc. that are washed off do not end up in the groundwater, rivers or ditches. However, nothing is full proof and the levels of things like phosphates, nitrates and pesticides are still significantly higher than they should be in most water courses in the UK and, no doubt, across Europe and beyond.

It’s not just about farming.

It is also important to note that farmers are not the only contributors of these substances. Phosphates and pesticides enter rivers from urban areas via roads, drains and misconnected waste water pipes. So there is work to be done to educate all people on best practice to protect the water environment and local authorities and private businesses will also have a role in this. Efforts to improve the quality of the water re-entering the water system through improvements to wastewater treatment works are ongoing. The fact remains though that currently the removal of substances such as phosphates is difficult and expensive. These are costs that get passed on the public so the cost implications also have to be considered when tackling this issue.

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