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 participated in the ‘Soil Fertility Research in the North West Highlands project’ supported with funding from the University of Stirling and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Between 2017 and 2021 Geopark Geoarchaeologist, Dr Laura Hamlet worked with Louisa Habermann on her PhD project, examining Soil Nutrients and Fertility in the North West Highlands Geopark. During this time Laura and Louisa welcomed three new babies into the world between them, which wasn’t written into the original project plan but we were very proud to see some lasting changes to the way women work in science as a result of this project!
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 settlements 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.
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. This project allowed us to study the soil resource in Assynt and Coigach, 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 undertook field work we involved the young people in the area working on their geography higher at Ullapool Highschool, inspiring and empowering them to think about a career in science, crofting and beyond.
What we have been up to
- 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
- Final round of field-trips for schools
- Second season of fieldwork
- High-school student projects/dissertations
- A talk at the Rock Stop from Louisa Habermann (see below to watch the video!)
- Labwork and writing up results (much reduced due to the Covid-19 pandemic)
- Published a booklet on Coigach and Assynt soils for land managers, crofters, gardeners, and anyone else who works with the soil!
What we’ll do in 2022
- Produce a video summarising past land-use and management and how this has impacted present-day soils
- An exhibition on the project, based in the new Clachtoll Ranger hut
What we’ll see in the future
- Louisa will complete a Doctoral Thesis and associated international journal publications
- 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.