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Research

Soil Fertility Research Project

The North West Highlands Geopark is a partner in the Coigach Assynt Living Landscape. In a unique collaboration between the University of Stirling, the North West Highlands Geopark and the Scottish Wildlife Trust we are conducting Soil Fertility Research in the North West Highlands supported with funding from the University of Stirling and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Geopark Geoarchaeologist, Dr Laura Hamlet is working with Louisa Habermann on her PhD project, examining Soil Nutrients and Fertility in the North West Highlands Geopark.

Summary

In the rocky landscape of the North West Highlands soil is a rare resource both for agriculture and woodlands.  Inland, Assynt benefits from patches of limestone bedrock which provide occasional oases of fertile soil, artificially improved soils are also widely present but little exploited.

Recent research across the North Atlantic and Scotland has revealed that where past human settlement existed, the depth of the soil may have been artificially increased by them. In Scotland this typically involved composting materials such as household waste and ash and mixing it with seaweed, turf/peat, seaweed and sand to create very fertile soils for growing crops. This was a way of managing the land which started in prehistory and was widely used until just a century ago. In other areas it has been demonstrated that artificially created soil retains its fertility many centuries after abandonment, this may also be the case in Coigach and Assynt.

In Coigach and Assynt the efforts of past communities are often visible as rig and furrow features known as ‘lazy-beds’ but these pockets of both naturally and artificially fertile soil tend to be suited to small scale land management and can blend into the wider landscape of less fertile soil cover and become subject to land management practices which don’t take full advantage of it as a resource.

Our vision

If managed well soil fertility can be maintained and improved for any amount of purposes including agriculture, woodlands or grazing.  Understanding what this resource is and how current land management may be affecting its structure, chemistry and fertility is a crucial tool for building resilient communities in the future.  We plan to study the soil resource in Assynt, detect past land management practices and work together with current land managers to understand what they have learned from their experience of the land. We want to share this knowledge with current and future land managers, from gardeners to large estates to help everyone become the best stewards that they can be of the soil resource.

As we undertake field work we want to involve the young people in the area, inspiring and empowering them to think about a career in science, crofting and beyond.

What we’ll do

By end 2017:

  • Complete a second season of fieldwork including field trips for schools
  • First opportunity for work experience for school students at the University of Stirling Soil Laboratories
  • Informal workshops and presentations for land managers, crofters and gardeners on past land management practices and how they have impacted soils today
  • Begin outreach programme for land managers

By end 2018:

  • Second round of informal workshops and presentations for land managers etc
  • Final round of field-trips for schools
  • High-school student projects/dissertations
  • A report describing the archaeological character of soils
  • A report on the nutrient status of soils around selected sites

By end 2019

  • Final round of informal workshops and presentations for land managers etc
  • Produce an electronic booklet summarising past land-use and management and how this has impacted present day soils with a forecast for soil sustainability under different land-management strategies to be published on-line
  • Produce Doctoral Thesis and associated international journal publications
  • A mobile exhibition on the project, based in the NWH Geopark’s visitor center and taken to other venues

The benefits

  • Clearer understanding amongst land managers of soil fertility and documentation showing how past land management has affected this.
  • Deeper understanding amongst local people of the area’s cultural heritage with regards to soil legacy.
  • Training opportunities for land managers, crofters and gardeners in field analysis of soils provided by the NWH Geopark
  • Young people both informed and inspired by field work, university work experience and opportunities to study sciences/history and be more aware of their cultural heritage.
  • Information available to influence policy at a governmental level to properly support resilient communities.