Meet The Unsung Heroes Looking After Our Soil
There is an incredible world beneath our feet and we must look after it. As our founder Lady Eve Balfour said, “The health of soil, plant, animal and [human] is one and indivisible”.
Our soils are bustling with life, home to a quarter of the Earth’s species, from beetles and springtails to worms, spiders, nematodes, and billions of other microorganisms.
Healthy soils are vital for combatting climate change, feeding the planet’s population, and preventing flooding and droughts.
These unsung heroes of the soil all form a part of our diverse ecosystem and play a crucial role in keeping soils healthy.
Learn more about our soil heroes:
Did you know that up to 10 billion microorganisms can be found in just a quarter of a teaspoon of soil?
Soils are home to a quarter of the Earth’s species, millions too small to be seen by the naked eye, but vitally important to soil health and the planet.
Soil-inhabiting nematodes are tiny worm-like creatures that move slowly between soil particles, decomposing organic matter and recycling nutrients helping to keep the soil healthy. Nematodes are one of the most abundant creatures on Earth. In fact, just one gram of soil may contain more than a million nematodes!
Water bears, or tardigrades, are famous for being one of the most resistant animals on Earth. Incredibly, they can go up to 30 years without food or water, can survive at temperatures from freezing to above boiling, and can even withstand the vacuum of space! At less than 1mm in size, water bears swim inside moss and lichen, consuming plant debris and other organisms as they go, recycling nutrients back into the soil.
Bacteria are crucial to living, healthy soil and a balanced ecosystem. Most bacteria are decomposers, converting the energy stored in organic matter into nutrients that feed and enrich other organisms deep in the soil. Others are nitrogen-fixing bacteria, converting nitrogen into a useful form for plants, helping them to grow and thrive and playing an important role in the nitrogen cycle.
Springtails eat fungi, bacteria, algae and decaying organic matter, recycling the nutrients back into the soil. They benefit most plants by spreading beneficial fungi onto plant roots, helping them thrive.
Protozoa are aquatic single-celled animals that live in the water-filled pores, and the film of water that surrounds soil particles. Living in the top six inches of soil they consume bacteria, releasing excess nitrogen in a form available to the plant roots that surround them.
How are soils and their microorganisms at risk?
Recent research has shown that intensive pesticide use has devastating effects on these unsung heroes of the soil. It’s vital that we protect the abundance of life beneath our feet and save our soils before it’s too late.
Agroecological or nature-friendly farming methods like organic help create a healthy, living soil, without the need for harmful pesticides and chemicals. Farming with nature results in a more diverse range of microbes living underground. This helps crops to grow without the need for artificial fertilisers, building soil fertility naturally using compost and clover. Learn more about agroecology and its benefits.
Help protect the heroes beneath our feet
By supporting the Soil Association charity, you’re playing your part in ensuring we can continue to work with farmers, policymakers, and citizens to save our soil and the unsung heroes beneath our feet.
Hidden underground, fungi can spread for kilometres, creating a huge network that's vital for soils, and helps plants and trees to communicate - it’s sometimes known as the ‘wood wide web’.
When we think of fungi, most of us think of mushrooms. But these are just the fruiting bodies, a bit like apples on a tree. Most fungi live as an underground network of branching, fusing cells called mycelium. They make up a diverse kingdom of organisms that support the life of our ecosystem.
If you teased apart the mycelium found in a teaspoon of healthy soil and laid it end to end, it could stretch anywhere from 100 metres to 10km?
What role do they play on organic farms and for soil?
A key principle of agroecology is recognising that there's a close relationship between plants, animals, soils and humans. As carbon capturers, nutrient transporters and pollution filterers, the role fungi play in our ecosystem is invaluable. Learn more about the benefits to farmers practicing agroecology.
Fungi are ‘decomposers’. They get their nutrition by breaking down decaying organic matter like dead plants, trees and animals. This process releases nutrients into the soil, which then become available for plants and trees to absorb. In doing so, they enable the ‘circle of life,’ cycling nutrients throughout our ecosystem.
There’s more carbon in our soils than there is in all the world’s plants, forests and the atmosphere combined!
A large proportion of this is bound up in the organic compounds produced by fungi. Studies show that healthy soils on organic farms are able to store (‘sequester’) up to 25% more carbon in the long term. Fungi play an important role here, making them a vital piece of the climate puzzle.
Soil erosion is a big concern for both farmers. Half the topsoil on our planet has been lost in the last 150 years, due to erosion, and much of this is due to intensive farming. The dense mesh of mycelium in healthy soils holds them together; its networks wind through plant roots and shoots. Without it, soil would be washed away.
Did you know that healthy soils can filter out pollutants? Fungi have been shown to be amazing cleaners of our soils, filtering out everything from heavy metals to pesticides, and even radioactive waste.
Protecting and harnessing the power of fungi
The overuse of fungicides and artificial fertilisers can damage fungi's sensitive mycelium, and deforestation on farmland can kill off the fungi associated with trees and hedges.
By farming in a way that works with nature, known as agroecology, we can learn to harness the power of these amazing networks. For example, instead of fungicides, organic farmers work with ‘beneficial fungi’, which outcompete and destroy harmful fungi.
Likewise, by feeding the soil, and the living mycelium within it, by applying composts, manures and using cover crops, we can build its fertility, in harmony with fungi. In return, farmers are rewarded with the amazing ecosystem services that fungi provide – healthier, more resilient soils, and more nutritious crops.
Worms play an incredibly important role in recycling nutrients, improving soil structure, and providing a food source for other species in the food chain. Discover more about these engineers of the soil.
Help save our soil
Your support is more important than ever. Together with your help, we can continue working with farmers, policymakers, and citizens to save our soil.