Environmental guidance for your business in Northern Ireland & Scotland

Land and soil management

Land management and soil protection

Soil is a farmer's biggest asset. Managing your land well and protecting the soils on your farm will help you:

  • save money
  • increase crop yields
  • increase your farm's profitability
  • avoid causing pollution and localised flooding
  • protect local habitats and species
  • reduce the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events
  • prepare your application forms for agri-environment schemes.

Why manage your soils?

When you manage your soils well, you can reduce the risk of losses, which saves you money.

Keeping your soils in good condition will help to protect your livelihood and boost your crop yields.

You can help reduce diffuse pollution and protect yourself from losses of topsoil, fertiliser and pesticides. Well-managed soils are easier to cultivate and more likely to retain water.

In Scotland measures to help reduce diffuse pollution have been included in the Controlled Activities Regulations (CAR).

SEPA: Diffuse pollution

Information on preventing water pollution from farms is available from the Farming and Water Scotland website.

Farming and Water Scotland

Managing your soils well can also help reduce the impacts of extreme weather events, by slowing down and storing excess water. You can reduce the risk of flooding, and reduce damage to your soil and crops by run-off during heavy rain.

Good soil management is one of the requirements for keeping your land in good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC) under cross compliance. Preventing soil from eroding from fields, maintaining soil organic matter and maintaining a good soil structure are essential to meet the soil standard GAEC1.

See our guidance on cross compliance and agri-environment schemes.

Poor soil management can result in:

  • lower crop yields
  • limiting your choice for future land use
  • deposits of soil on roads due to run-off and erosion from fields
  • flocalised flooding caused by run-off from fields
  • reduced effectiveness of fertilisers and pesticides
  • loss of soil and fertility
  • water pollution caused by run-off from fields containing sediment, nutrients and farm chemicals
  • degradation of river habitats due to excessive sediment deposition
  • bacterial, fungal and algal growth in rivers, caused by run-off containing organic matter and nutrients.

If you pollute water or harm the environment because you have not managed the soil on your farm properly you may be committing an offence, and you could be prosecuted and fined.

Good practice

Identify your farm landscape

Make sure you understand how your farm landscape affects your soil management. The risk of run-off and erosion depends on the physical features of the farm, soil management and local weather conditions.

If you have sloping land you may have more problems with run-off and erosion, especially if the rain infiltration rate is low. Intense rainfall can cause flash flooding and severe erosion. It is important to maintain a good structure in the soil surface so that water can infiltrate. Even sandy soils can become compacted or capped and this can lead to run-off and possible erosion.

Make sure you know where all the watercourses are on your farm. This will help you to plan your fertiliser and pesticide use to avoid causing water pollution.

Prevent run-off from roads and tracks washing onto fields, this can cause erosion. Field tracks and tramlines can also provide an easy route for run-off, soil sediments and pollutants to enter watercourses.

Identify the soil types on your farm

You need to know your soils if you want to get the best from them. Soils can vary across farm holdings and even within individual fields. Nutrient requirements and soil management needs can also depend on soil type.

You can identify the soil types in your fields from the amounts of clay, silt and sand in the soil. Your soil may also be peaty if it has a very high content of organic matter. Monitor the condition of your soils.

Indirect observations, such as crop growth and development, as well as resistance to pests and diseases, can be a good indication of soil health. Direct observations in the field are a more reliable way of checking your soil's condition.

Surface observations include:

  • looking for signs of poaching, if land has been used for stock grazing
  • looking for signs of erosion or rills
  • comparing run-off with other fields
  • checking for silt deposition in fields, on roads or in streams
  • checking for ponding or water logging
  • looking for water loss or drought areas in the soil
  • looking for areas of poor crop growth.

To make observations of the top soil and subsoil, you will have to dig a small hole. You should check:

  • how porous the soil is
  • how many fissures there are
  • root structure to tell you how healthy your soil is, eg roots will spread less, or may grow horizontally, in compacted soil.

Take samples across all parts of a field, so that you get an accurate picture of the soil.

It pays to assess your soil structure and texture regularly, especially in winter, to identify appropriate management practices.

Consider weather conditions on your farm

The weather and climatic conditions on your farm will affect how you manage your soils.

If you are in an area with high levels of rainfall, you need to be more aware of the potential for flash flooding and erosion from water run-off, especially if you also farm on moderate to steep slopes.

If you have a sandy soil and are in a windy area, your fields may be at risk from wind erosion.

Change your land use to improve soil quality

How you use your land can have a significant impact on soil quality. By understanding the impact your land use has on soil you can identify good practice measures which can help to minimise these problems.

Grow crops which suit the type of land. Some crops are more likely than others to affect soil quality.

Crops which are harvested in the autumn, such as maize, will increase the risk of compaction in your soil and run-off. Consider growing earlier maturing varieties, and cultivate your soil after harvest to reduce this risk.

Avoid over-wintering of stock on waterlogged soils, spreading slurry in winter and harvesting in difficult conditions, which can lead to soil compaction, run-off and erosion. See our guidance on landspreading slurries.

Change your activities if possible to help protect your soils.

Improve your soil management

Avoid using heavy farm equipment on waterlogged soil.

Set yourself goals and prioritise your actions to improve the condition of your soils. If you set challenging targets now, you can help to reduce the impacts that climate change will have on your farm.

Loosen the soil after harvest to allow water to soak in rather than run off fields. In areas susceptible to wind erosion you can use nurse crops, or establish hedges and shelter belts to reduce erosion.

Use a farm map to identify where you can make a difference on your farm, and how any changes you make will affect watercourses.

This will benefit your business by increasing your farm's profitability, increasing your crop yields, and helping you to avoid causing water pollution.

Watch our short videos:

How to protect soil and water on a farm

How to make good use of nutrients on a farm

How to prevent diffuse pollution on a farm

Further information

Scotland: Farm Soils Plan

The Farm Soils Plan is for farmers, crofters and contractors across Scotland. It could help you to protect soils, meet environmental standards and benefit your farm business.

Scottish Government: Farm Soils Plan

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Northern Ireland

Any person intending to alter the use or management of areas of uncultivated or semi-natural land must obtain prior approval from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA). DAERA will screen all such applications and any that are likely to have significant environmental effects will be requested to prepare an Environmental Impact Assessment before a decision on whether the project can go ahead is given. It is an offence to carry out any such work without prior permission from DAERA.

Codes of good agricultural practice

Following the codes of good agricultural practice can help you to protect your soils.

Northern Ireland

DAERA: Code of good agricultural practice for the prevention of pollution of water, air and soil

Scotland

Scottish Government: Prevention of environmental pollution from agricultural activity (PEPFAA) code 2005

Scottish Government: PEPFAA DOs and DON'Ts guide

You can obtain a free printed copy of the PEPFAA Code and the 'DOs and DON'Ts Guide' from your local Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate (SGRPID) area office.

Scottish Government: SGRPID area offices

Guidance for farmers on managing soils

Soil Association: Farmers and growers

Forestry Commission: Soil sustainability

Farming Futures: Soil management fact sheet

Farming Futures: Water management fact sheet

SEPA: Removal of sand, silt or clay from the bed of previously straightened rivers and burns which are ≥1m and <5m wide

Other relevant NetRegs guidance

Cross compliance and agri-environment schemes

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