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Friday 2nd April 2004

Field Study

Around 120 scientists have just spent seven years and £6 million studying a field in the Scottish Borders.

Not surprisingly, one of them says that they now know more about that patch of grass than about any other soil on earth. But ... why?

The classic BBC radio comedy series "Beyond Our Ken" used to feature a gardener called Arthur Fallowfield, played by Kenneth Williams. His response to anyone who asked him anything was, always, (in a cod West Country accent) "the answer lies in the soil". But, what's the question?

The team researching the soil in a very ordinary field at Sourhope, east of Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders, have been asking more questions than you'd think. And finding answers, too.

"Top man in his field"

Over the past seven years they've mowed the field, treated bits of it with fertilisers, and sprayed other bits with insecticides.

They've dug some of it up, they've examined bugs from the earth under the microscope, they've counted the different plant species, recorded the worms in the soil, and quantified the extent and nature of what they call "the predatory beetle community".

All in all, if it moves - and even if it doesn't - the chances are some-one has weighed it, measured it, and photographed it.

Professor Michael Usher was the man in charge of the research - the top man in his field, as it were. He told me they'd deliberately picked an unremarkable farm site to study, because they wanted results which would have practical applications.

And he isn't at all jealous of other researchers, who get to jet off and dive on coral reefs, or explore the rain forest.
"If I take just a pinch of soil", he told me, "we probably have at least a billion bacteria in just that small sample".

He said a square meter of soil probably contains two thousand different species - more than you'd find in any rain forest, without the cost of an air fare to get there! But, he said, "we just don't know what they do".

Carbon from the Air

One thing we do know is that the soil locks up a massive quantity of carbon dioxide - three times the amount that's in growing plants.

We also know that process can work in reverse - soil could release a huge quantity of carbon back into the atmosphere. That wouldn't help efforts to tackle global warming and the effects of burning fossil fuels.

Professor Usher says one of the striking findings from research at Sourhope is "the speed with which carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is taken up by plants, and then becomes part of the soil". It takes "just a very few hours, and we didn't realise it could be as fast as that".

Underground Ecology

The speed and effectiveness of that carbon cycling process is influenced by the range of species living in the soil. But we know very little about how to conserve bio-diversity underground, because most research has concentrated on ecology above ground.

The danger is, if we get it wrong, and push soil too far, it might stop working for us. That could have disastrous implications.

The findings of all the research programmes carried out at Sourhope are due to be discussed at a Natural Environment Research Council conference in London on Tuesday April 6th.

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