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Rewilding the soil

Ted Green MBE, Heal's founding patron, is described as Britain's foremost ancient tree expert. He was the Founder member and President of the Ancient Tree Forum and Honorary Vice President of the International Tree Foundation.

He was awarded an MBE in recognition of his work in conservation, especially trees and fungi. He was given the Arboricultural Association Annual Award for his contribution to arboriculture and was awarded The Gold Medal by The Royal Forestry Society for his distinguished services to Forestry. He was made an Honorary Lecturer by Imperial College London. Ted is Conservation Consultant to the Crown Estate at Windsor.​


It is perfectly normal, when thinking of nature and wildlife, to only think of it visually and forget the invisible elements. After all, in the beginning ‘God gave man dominion over all other fellow creatures’ but forgot microorganisms. Farmers today, other than those that practise organic or regenerative farming, pay total disregard to the living soil and farm a lifeless toxic medium they call soil.

What is living soil and why should you care about it?

Many cultures worship a Mother Earth deity such as Pachamama in South America, Prithvi in Hinduism and Gaia in Greek mythology. These cultures understand the fundamental importance of soil to our existence. Yet the majority of societies associate 'earth' with Planet Earth and have little or no idea of the essential role that soil plays in sustaining life.

Living soil is a combination of minerals, organic matter, air, water and living organisms. It’s estimated that one quarter of all species on Earth live in our soils.

The presence of bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi in soil is critical – they interact with each other in different ways, from simply being associated, through being attached, to essential interconnection. Over 90% of plants on the planet are connected to mycorrhizal fungi and could be said to provide the bulk of minerals, nutrients and water to plants, through making them available for plants to use.

Healthy soils act like sponges, holding water for plants and other organisms and regulating the water flow. Soils mitigate climate change by holding a lot of carbon. They hold more carbon than the atmosphere and all vegetation combined, including forests. Many soils can actually store much more carbon than they currently do, which means that healthy soils could help us fight climate change.

Living soils can also control pollution. When contaminated water soaks into soils, a healthy population of microorganisms within the soil can help break down harmful chemicals.

Why is so much of our soil lifeless and toxic?

Modern farming is exhausting and destroying the soil through the overuse of pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and animal pharmaceutical products, and by overworking the same ground.

Unhealthy soils are more at risk of soil erosion and can make the scale of floods and droughts worse when extreme weather hits. Lifeless soils store less carbon, and can get washed away and clog up rivers, increasing the flood risk for people living downstream.

How rewilding could restore our soil

In the past it was a common practice to leave fields fallow, especially with farmers who had poorer soils. This practice involved farmers taking fields out of production, often on a rotation, to let the fields rest. In this respect, you could also call rewilding projects ‘giant fallow projects’. After all, we assume that these projects are rewilding the soil too. I say ‘assume’, because it is not known what will happen, in the context of rewilding, to the incredible variation and diversity of our soil types. In part, it depends upon their condition at the time of the cessation of farming.

What we can say is pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers and animal pharmaceutical products will not be used during rewilding. We could therefore call these ‘fallow and rewilding’ projects.

When President Roosevelt talked about the severe dust storms affecting the Great Plains of the US in the 1930s, caused by several years of drought, he said, ’A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.’

It’s common sense that when we rewild, the effects on the soil of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides will eventually disappear and the microorganism community will return. The future is in our hands.

Image credits: Trees © Peter Walker



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