CEH Soils and Land Use

Lead Research Organisation: NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology


Measure and model change in soil function and quality, and quantify change in land use and land condition. Assess the role of climate change and land use change in driving changes in the structure and function of our soil and land, and develop solutions to conserve, enhance and manage multiple ecosystem services from local to global.


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Borrelli P (2018) Lateral carbon transfer from erosion in noncroplands matters. in Global change biology

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Bugter R (2018) Making a better case for biodiversity conservation: the BESAFE project in Biodiversity and Conservation

Description An example of some key findings include:

Evidence of rapid soil carbon loss in upland environments over the last 10 years which has important implications for climate mitigation and soil function.

Development of a new conceptual framework for modelling soil carbon change at a national scale which will improve our potential to improve future land management for multiple benefits.

Quantification of the impacts of different post-Brexit trade deals in terms of environmental and economic outcomes at a national scale in Wales including recreation and public health

Using biomass for energy production has huge potential as a tool for mitigating against climate change through fossil fuel substitution, however, uncertainties remain at the system level due to cultivation based GHG emissions. Our work has significantly reduced this uncertainty through field and modelling initiatives.

We demonstrated that while grassland diversity restoration management increases the resistance of carbon fluxes to drought, it also reduces agricultural yields, revealing a trade-off for land managers. As such, grassland management strategies not only have consequences for ecosystem processes, but also the capacity to withstand extreme weather events.

We have demonstrated that grassland plant species form specific associations with soil community members and that information on plant species distributions can improve predictions of soil community composition. We have shown that plant species in monoculture have significant effects on ecosystem functioning, but that this is not the case in mixed-species systems. We have also contributed to work identifying novel mechanistic links between the outcome of plant-soil feedback for plant growth and the diversity of fungi in grasslands.

Following a once in 100 year rainfall event in the UK our research highlighted that extreme rainfall events may be important yet overlooked determinants of rootassociated fungal community assembly. Given the integral role of ectomycorrhizal fungi in biogeochemical cycles, these events may have considerable impacts upon the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems.

We demonstrate that logging has a profound influence on the functioning of tropical forest tree communities shifting from resource conservative to resource acquisitive traits. This has implications for the prediction of ecosystem process rates in human modified tropical forest landscapes. We also showed that logging profoundly alters tropical forest microclimates primarily through changes to canopy structure. This finding suggests that logged forests are less buffered to future regional climate change.

We demonstrated that the beds under glaciers contain a perfect cocktail of ingredients for the production of the potent greenhouse gas methane. Our results suggest that temperate glacial methane production and release may thus be a significant and hitherto unresolved contributor of a potent greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.

We have developed and validated molecular environmental DNA (eDNA) protocols for the detection and characterisation of communities of organisms from fish to invertebrates to characterise the status and health of freshwater ecosystems.

We provided new insight in the mechanisms through which drought alters soil microbial communities with potential long-term consequences, including future plant community composition and the ability of aboveground and belowground communities to withstand future disturbances.

We contributed analysis to the firefly genome that support independent gains of bioluminescence in fireflies and click beetles, and provide new insights into the genes, chemical defences, and symbionts that evolved alongside their luminous lifestyle.

We have developed an operational method for high spatial resolution vegetation productivity mapping at a national scale which uses the relationship between single-date Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) imagery and widely distributed ground-based above-ground NPP (ANPP) estimates, from a range of habitat types across Wales to predict ANPP values outside of field survey plots.

We have used Countryside Survey vegetation data to identify existing methods that have a high potential for practical application in estimating species richness at coarse spatial scales.

We have carried out research that identifies effective approaches for convincing diverse actors of the importance of biodiversity protections. These include the use of multiple and diverse arguments to broaden the appeal to wider audiences, especially when arguments are repeated and refined through constructive dialogue. The results provide support the current shift towards recognition of value pluralism in biodiversity science and decision-making.

We have developed methods that use satellite remote sensing data together with spatially representative sampled field data to produce national natural capital metrics that are relevant to the provision of ecosystem services for both scientists and stakeholders.

We have highlighted the importance of field data collected by expert ecologists for monitoring state and change in habitats.

We have linked headwater stream water quality data from the Countryside Survey to data for the rivers into which they flow to understand nutrient limitation in these waterbodies in order to help in the prioritisation of remediation efforts.

We have identified groups of farmers working in particular landscape configurations that are at risk from tick bites and recommended disease prevention approaches.

We have demonstrated the potential role of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) land cover maps for identifying land cover characteristics driving the spatial; distribution of a disease host species, thereby helping targeting of limited -resource disease control measures.

We have produced research detailing the extent and condition of habitats, vegetation and species in the British uplands and investigated policy effects on them.

We have carried out the first formal comparison of the accuracy between land cover maps created with temporal aggregation of Sentinel-1 (S1), Sentinel-2 (S2), and Landsat-8 (L8) data from one-year and tested the extent to which this method matches the accuracy of traditional approaches. The study demonstrated that temporal aggregation is a promising tool for integrating large amounts of data in an efficient way and that it can compensate for the lower quality of automatic image selection and cloud masking. It also shows that combining data from different sensors can improve classification accuracy. However, the study highlighted the need for identifying optimal combinations of satellite data and aggregation parameters in order to match the accuracy of manually selected and processed image composites.

We have published the CEH Key Habitats Survey data, covering semi-natural habitats that were perceived to be under threat, or which represented areas of concern to the former Department of the Environment. The landscapes were lowland heath, chalk and limestone (calcareous) grasslands, coasts and uplands. The data were analysed and described in a series of contract reports and are summarised in the present data paper. The paper sets out what the data are and its potential.

We have published a data paper describing the surveys of landscape features and habitats (mapped data) that are a key part of the Countryside Survey data. We describe the resulting datasets, how they have been used to date and their potential for future analysis.

With European colleagues we have developed a joint knowledge platform called Oppla - aimed at providing access to a wide range of resources on Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services. We have described how knowledge is integrated in Oppla and how guidance tools within Oppla can be used by science, policy and practice users to help them to find research outcomes.

We have published examples of biophysical interactions that occur across various temporal and spatial scales and show how connectivity can be useful for bridging disciplines and scales to increase our understanding.

We tested the effect of increased CO2 concentration, temperature, and drought frequency on gross rates of protein depolymerization, N mineralization, microbial amino acid and ammonium uptake using 15N pool dilution assays. Eight years after treatment initiation, we found no significant effect of any climate manipulation treatment, alone or in combination, on protein depolymerization rates. Nitrogen mineralization, amino acid and ammonium uptake showed no significant individual treatment effects, but significant interactive effects of warming and drought.

While the source and fate of bacterial pathogens in rivers and coastal waters has been well-monitored and studied, less is known about the source and fate of viruses which affect human health. We published the results of a monitoring program to determine the virus load and its variability at a range of time scales in river and tidal waters, sewage effluent, sediment and shellfish in the Conwy catchment and estuary in North Wales.

We have modelled the joint influence of tidal and river flow on the dispersal of contaminants in river estuaries, and show how this varies according to the hydrological response characteristics of the river catchment and the bathymetry of the estuary. The study compares the Conwy and the Humber estuaries using measured river flows superimposed on the tidal cycle.

We have contributed to work that shows that there is an uneven distribution of contaminants with hotspots in the Eastern Atlantic and Western Pacific. And that land-based activities combined with climate change have generated negative impacts on coastal marine ecosystems.

We have shown the contrasting impacts of the climate manipulation on the drivers of carbon enzymes between winter and summer. In winter, the reduced availability of water extractable organic carbon downregulated enzyme activity. While in summer, reduced soil microbial biomass led to a decrease of C-enzyme activity.

We contributed the data set to a global analysis that found that rarer taxa are more important for structuring soil communities than abundant taxa, and that these rarer taxa are better predictors of community structure than environmental factors, which are often confounded across studies.

We have modelled the amount of carbon displaced by soil erosion, rill and interrill processes each year. We estimated 47 % comes from cropland while 53% comes from semi-natural habitats and forests and must not be ignored.

We show that combined information on soil and plant community types explained 44 % of variation in soil organic carbon (SOC) stock in salt-marsh communities studied. We were able to upscale results for Wales.

We show that soil under savanna shrubs is enriched in nutrients via positive feedbacks in 'islands of fertility'.

We developed a new conceptual model of aquatic macronutrient cycling, highlighting the importance of bioavailable organic carbon for allowing aquatic systems to assimilate nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

We showed that peatland ditch-blocking has not resulted in clear changes in dissolved organic matter quality, countering the widely held view that peat restoration will improve treatability of raw water supplies.

We developed a method for valuing air pollution (nitrogen) impacts on biodiversity, and used this to show the benefits of policy controls on nitrogen emissions.

We have demonstrated the hydrochemical benefits of restoration techniques in fens.

We reviewed and discussed how the development of robust crop growth models capable of including ozone effects would substantially improve future national, regional and global risk assessments that aim to assess the role that ozone might play under future climatic conditions in limiting food supply.

We showed that broadleaf and conifer forests in the Czech Republic have responded differently to changes in atmospheric deposition, with implications for carbon sequestration and nutrient leaching
Using results from 33 experiments across three continents we show that current ozone pollution reduces growth, grain yield and grain quality of wheat.

We analysed the largest dataset of long-term peat subsidence measurements ever published, working with one of Indonesia's largest plantation companies. Results showed that peat under plantations is subsiding at over 4 cm/yr, with implications for CO2 emissions, long term agricultural viability and future flood risk.

We found that N and P availability can modify greenhouse gas emissions from a UK upland soil ecosystem.

We found that soil total carbon and ß-glucosidase activity were decreased under elevated ozone in a grassland. The size and activity of the microbial community was also affected.

We showed that large-scale mortality of upland forests due to insect attack had fundamental and long-lasting effects on ecosystem nutrient cycling and water quality.

We quantified the global ozone impact on wheat yield and estimate an annual production loss of 85 million tonnes of grain (averaged for the period 2010-12).

We demonstrated that correlations between heavy metals in mosses and modelled heavy metal deposition are metal specific and affected by ecological land classes and land use.

We demonstrated that vegetation-relevant ozone metrics generally declined in North America, did not change in Europe and increased in East Asia between 1995 and 2014.

We published the first estimates of aquatic carbon loss from tropical oil palm plantations on peat, demonstrating high rates of carbon loss via this pathway, which were increased by deeper drainage.

Based on new data from Australia we showed that small artificial waterbodies make a major and largely unrecognised contribution to regional methane emissions.

We undertook a global review of the effects of grazing on soil carbon and found that grazing impacts vary according to climatic conditions and grazing intensity.

We demonstrated that ozone impacts on wheat yield are not affected by the ozone profile, i.e. rising episodic peak concentrations or rising background concentrations.

We demonstrated that Albania is a hotspot of heavy metal pollution in Europe. Five dominant emission sources of heavy metals were identified in Albania using mosses as biomonitors of atmospheric heavy metal deposition.

We demonstrate that apoplastic ascorbate induced in leaves of tobacco, soybean and poplar does not protect them from adverse impacts of ozone pollution.

We measured the distribution and sources of dissolved organic matter in the North Sea and showed that riverine exports from the Eastern UK, European rivers and Baltic combine to generate a flux of terrestrially derived organic carbon to the North Atlantic.

We used globally available data to assess controls on carbon stocks in dryland soils. Dryland soils have large potential for carbon storage. Capacity is strongly affected by soil texture, with less capacity on more sandy soils.

We demonstrate that the impact of ozone on crop yield is within the range of concern for other important crop stressors (including crop pests, heat and nutrient stress).

Model projections suggest that climate warming will affect soil chemical responses to recovery from atmospheric pollution. We found that higher temperatures are projected to increase soil pH and total carbon/nitrogen ratio, across a long-term network of European sites. Model projections also suggest that floristic responses to decreases in atmospheric nitrogen pollution will be slow across a long-term network of European sites, due to confounding effects of climate warming and recovery from acidification.

We found the most meaningful metric of N deposition was a 30 year cumulative metric.

We published a paper showing that using dynamic models for carbon gives more accurate assessment of carbon stocks globally.

We contributed to first global valuation of ecosystem services provided by shellfish.

We created evidence-based impact chains for the first time to show effects of trace metals on ecosystem services.

We showed that most contaminant nitrogen in groundwater affecting dune systems comes from external sources, not nitrogen deposition.

We demonstrated that nitrogen availability in soils does not affect impacts of ozone pollution in birch saplings.

We review physiological and metabolic responses of temperate grasses to abiotic stresses associated with climate change and show new opportunities to harness gene combinations capable of resilience to climate change.

We demonstrated that predicted changes in climate could alter ozone uptake by vegetation even in the absence of changes in ozone concentration. Predicted increases in ozone uptake from modelled increases in ozone concentration showed a strong relationship with latitude.

We developed and assessed a model of soil organic matter, in which stocks (within measurable pools) are governed mainly by litter input, interactions with mineral matter, and hypoxia.
Exploitation Route National Governments (Wales and England) are directly using the Brexit modelling work to put in place safety nets to mitigate the potential environmental and economic fallout from Brexit
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Healthcare

Description Please see the response to individual grants awarded to UK CEH in this area and our UKCEH National Capability returns.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Energy,Environment,Healthcare,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services

Description Brexit modelling work
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Impact National Governments (Wales and England) are directly using our Brexit modelling work to put in place safety nets to mitigate the potential environmental and economic fallout from Brexit.