Today, people across the globe are joining forces in an appreciation of soil. For three decades the fact that World Soil Day even exists has slipped under my radar, but this year I’m following it with interest. Why? Because this year I’ve come to realise; conversations about soil are some of the most vital conversations we need to have.

Most of us probably don’t talk about – or, for that matter, think about – soil on a regular basis. But, when you do think about it, you start to appreciate the influence it has for every one of us every day. That influence was set out perfectly for me by environmental activist Satish Kumar, who I had to pleasure of hearing speak some months ago. His message was this: ‘we are all soil transformed’. That might sound like a slightly eccentric statement but, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. As humans we rely on food to give us the energy and nutrition to survive, and food comes from the soil: the vegetables and fruits we eat grow from it; the meat we consume comes from animals that graze on grass or feed on grain that grows from it. So, by default, we rely on the soil for our very survival.

Given recent evaluations, that leaves us in a bit of a quandary…because, in their current condition, our soils will only last another seventy harvests. Industrial pollution and intensive agriculture are killing our soils: they are compacted, lacking in organic matter, and eroding. It takes a thousand years for one centimetre of fertile topsoil to form but we’re losing multiple thousands of square metres of it by the minute. Climate change will make that worse; extreme weather conditions will mean more erosion in hotter and drier seasons and more soils being washed away in heavy rainfall. Given that soils act as a carbon store, they should be helping us in the fight against climate change, but we need to start looking after them if we want them to look after us.

Soil is a complex thing, full of life, from bacteria to bugs, all working together to break down and revitalise the earth and maintain nutrient levels. When soil is healthy this ecosystem works in harmony and has the ability to do what it needs to, but when we introduce an imbalance we can throw the whole system out of line: whether that’s the addition of chemicals, the compaction of the earth through heavy machinery, or the removal of nutrients at too high a rate through monocropping, not looking after the soil can significantly reduce its performance. And that has a knock-on effect on the whole food and farming system.

I speak with plenty of farmers in my day-job, and soil health is a popular topic of conversation. Soil is a farmer’s most precious asset: their livelihood depends on their ability to grow crops, and the healthier the soil the healthier the harvest. I’ve come across lots of farmers, both organic and non-organic, who are exploring new methods for building resilient healthy soils and seeking ways to reduce activity that has a negative influence. Their reasons for doing so are varied: some have been proactively tending to their soil health for years; some have seen a reduction in productivity and are looking for a fix; and some are facing the uncertain future of agrichemicals and recognising soil health as critical to a good yield. Their levels of commitment differ too, with some looking for a quick fix or temporary measure while others have built their entire growing system around their soil. While it’s encouraging to see this activity taking place, I can’t help but wonder whether it’s enough…or whether something more strategic needs to happen in order for us to make a real difference.

Encouragingly, it seems that Government are upping their game too. George Eustice recently stated that soil will sit at the heart of post-Brexit agricultural policy, indicating a wholesale review of our existing soil management techniques and a renewed focus on environmental improvement. Just days later it was announced that mandatory soil testing will come into force next year as part of new rules to protect the water environment from chemical run-off. And, of course, we have heard several times from Michael Gove that revamped payment schemes will reward farmers who demonstrate environmentally-friendly practices – of which protecting, and improving, soil health is one example. It’s a clear directive that a discernible commitment to soil health will soon be an imperative, rather than an autonomous, action.

It will be interesting to see just what the new agricultural policy looks like, and how far it goes in outlining and incentivising healthy soil. But considering the influence of soil on food security, climate change, and the future of agriculture, it seems clear that the emphasis on healthy soils needs to be robust.

By this time next year, I’m hoping that World Soil Day might be more than just a day of appreciation and campaigning….perhaps we’ll also be celebrating turning a corner towards healthier soil, and perhaps we’ll be enjoying a slightly better outlook on the future for one of our planet’s most precious things.

Last week MPs, debating the EU Withdrawal Bill, voted to reject a clause recognising animals as sentient beings. It was a somewhat marginal vote, at 313 to 295, undoubtedly one of many quiet decisions being made behind parliamentary doors, but it caused a storm among animal rights groups.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the news of such a vote is a hoax: it seems an archaic conclusion and, for my part, I’m a little dumbfounded. The definition of sentience is a capacity to feel or perceive, and to suggest any animal doesn’t fit that description shows a level of obliviousness that I can’t quite comprehend. Our understanding of animals as compassionate, responsive and cognisant beings is growing all the time and a decision not to encapsulate this in UK law surely goes against all that we’ve learned. At best this decision is nonsensical; at worst it raises troublesome questions around animal welfare.

Those who rejected the clause tell us it’s covered by the Animal Welfare Act: but the Act doesn’t mention sentience. This worries me: when we deny animals’ ability to feel, we open the door to reduced rigour in wider welfare laws that are there to protect those animals. I’m of the mind that our duty of care is not limited to their physical state, as surely a quality of life is also dependent on factors that influence mental wellbeing.

Working in the agricultural sector, my immediate concerns relate to livestock farming. Sadly, the image many of us have of bright-eyed happy animals in lush green fields is far from reality all too often, as a shocking number of animals are still raised in intensive indoor farms. These animals don’t enjoy what I would consider a good quality of life, largely because they are unable to present natural behaviours like grazing, pecking, foraging, exercising or simply enjoying the air and sun. Animals in intensive systems aren’t necessarily unhealthy physically, but I would argue that their emotional health suffers. My concern is that, by disregarding their sentience, we suggest intensive farming is acceptable. This would be a huge step backwards.

Beyond farming, a rejection of sentience raises red flags for our treatment of animals across the board: zoos, circus animals, breeding, pet care services, wild animal encounters…we interact with animals, and have a direct impact on their lives, in so many ways. And if their mental wellbeing in these situations goes unprotected, where do we stand when our human influence causes distress? Morally we may still recognise that animals have both an emotional and conscious reaction, but legally would we be obliged to ignore it?

Ask any pet owner if their animal feels pain, grief, fear, joy: I can all but guarantee their answer will be an unhesitating “yes”. It’s hard to deny that a dog experiences delight when greeting its owner, or anxiety when that owner is gone for a long period of time. And most cat owners would tell you that their pet recognises human sadness or ill-health and responds to it with affection that could well be classed as concern.

The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. Studies of animals in the wild have shown us the extent of their ability to care, grieve, play, problem-solve and much more. Elephants are a perfect example: they nurture and care for young with tenderness, have been seen grieving over lost family members, and are now known to recognise other individuals and families that they haven’t seen for years (as the old proverb goes, ‘elephants never forget’!) Anyone who’s been watching Blue Planet II has seen dolphins playing games in the waves or with pieces of coral, activities researchers have concluded they do for the sheer joy of it. And if you’ve visited a zoo and witnessed one of its residents pacing their enclosure, you will probably have questioned the emotional state of that animal.

I’m sure the MPs voting last week can’t have predicted that such a small decision would cause such a big wave, and I’m certainly not alone in calling for recognition of animal sentience to be formally recognised again. But with so much work still to be done to transfer EU law into UK legislation, it makes me wonder where else we might end up falling short post-Brexit…

 

I’ve loved trees for as long as I can remember. They’ve always had an air of magic for me – and yes, that might be because I spent the first seven years of my life believing they contained flourishing communities of masterfully hidden fairies… But that sense of mystical wonder has never quite disappeared. Even now I can’t help but marvel at the sheer magnificence of an ageing oak: they seem to defy all logic whilst simultaneously being the most natural thing in the world.

I think many of us take trees for granted, especially if – like me – you grew up in an area where they were abundant. I spent my childhood climbing trees or playing hide-and-seek in Hampshire’s beautiful New Forest, and during my teens the woods were a place for parties and camping and mad bike rides. When I set off for University and experienced proper city living – or as far as the cobbled streets of Canterbury can be called ‘city living’ – I missed the woods almost as much as I missed my family!

When I had the opportunity recently to attend a work conference that was all about trees, I’ll admit I was a little excited. The conference was about agroforestry – in simple terms, that means planting trees on farms. It’s an old practice, but one that most of us have never heard of, including me! But if you think about any drive you’ve taken through the countryside….and imagine those lines of hedgerows that neatly separate one field from the next…that’s one of the oldest and most basic implementations of agroforestry, and it happens all across the UK.

But agroforestry goes a lot further than hedgerows, and some of the most beneficial forms of it are few and far between in this country. But, as I learned from the conference, they can have hugely positive impacts on biodiversity, carbon management, animal welfare and even farm profitability.

Anything that incorporates trees and farming counts: from hedges to orchards to woodland species, and they can be used alongside both crops and livestock. One of my favourite examples is using trees as shelter for hens. Domestic chickens (the ones we see on farms) are descended from junglefowl and, as the name suggests, junglefowl live under trees. So, by nature, chickens love trees – at odds with the image most of us have of a chicken’s farmyard home. But farmers who give their hens access to trees will tell you they much prefer a good peck and forage beneath the shelter than in the open – and happy hens are healthy hens. It works for sheep and cattle too. One farmer at the conference stated unequivocally that agroforestry had singlehandedly improved survival rate in his lambs, thanks to the protection from the elements provided by the canopy.

Planting trees between crops is another example and the main benefit here is making better use of natural resources. The tree reaches up further and wider to make use of sunlight; its roots go deeper and spread further to gain water; and the crops get to steal some of those benefits from the soil to make them stronger and more nutrient-rich. And if the agroforestry system uses nut or fruit trees then you get an extra crop to put on the market – bonus!

For me, above all else, agroforestry is part of the answer to tackling climate change, thanks to trees’ ability to store carbon. Combined with the benefits on-farm – soil health, productivity, biodiversity – they can make a valuable contribution to more sustainable farming practice. And with farming being a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, finding ways to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint is absolutely critical. Government is only now starting to formally recognise the role agriculture must play in tackling climate change. Innovative and accessible solutions will be needed to help all farmers become more environmentally-friendly, and options like agroforestry will need strategic support to bring it into the mainstream. Organisations like the Woodland Trust are supporting progress by offering advice, grant support – and of course, the trees themselves – to farmers, but recognition from central government would give agroforestry a widespread boost and tangible impact.

Not long after Michael Gove was appointed Environment Minister, he made a promise to uphold the Conservative manifesto pledge to reach a target of planting eleven million more trees by 2020. If that promise holds true it’s exciting news, and I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that some of those millions can be allocated for use on farms.

It only took one day at a conference to make me an agroforestry fanatic. And after everything I’ve learned I can’t help realising: I was right, trees are a little bit magical after all…

 

 

 

 

This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately.

I’ve had a few pet cats and, until recently, was the proud ‘mother’ of two beautiful girls who – by my own admission – I spoiled rotten. For two years we enjoyed cat-selfie heaven in a house on the edge of the woods. They ate a luxury diet, roamed the great outdoors, slept in comfort and had more toys than most toddlers. And in demonstration of their gratitude they kept my lap warm, endured hours of pandering and baby talk, fetched me gifts and never scratched a single piece of furniture. They were the final stop on my journey to crazy-cat-lady-ville and the main reason I now receive feline gifts every birthday and Christmas.

When I moved house recently I was devastated to find myself at the mercy of flat rental boundaries and had no option but to say goodbye to my ‘babies’. I’m not ashamed to say I cried for a good hour when they went…but luckily they were adopted by a fellow crazy cat lady, who has given them a wonderful home and has been sending me regular updates to prove it!

The problem is…despite no longer owning any cats, I can’t seem to shake off some of my cat owner habits. I seek out the neighbourhood kitties, walking up and down the road making funny noises, waiting for them to gather around me like a feline Pied Piper. I’ve already picked out my favourites and memorised their preferred hiding places, and subconsciously I find my route home from work takes me past each and every one. A particularly friendly ginger tom now gets regular cuddles and I’m fairly certain his real owners are keeping watch out of the window in case I try to lure him back to my flat.

All I need now is a pocket full of cat treats and a paw print emblazoned jumper and I could find myself earning a local reputation…

Reading this you’d probably be surprised to learn that until five years ago I thought cats were tiny little devils with a strategy for world domination. Their slitted eyes looked at me with malevolence and cunning. I considered them supercilious and faithless, I didn’t like the way their fur moulted and every time I visited a cat-person’s house I sat in fear of imminent scratching. I just didn’t see the appeal.

Until one day, visiting the local rescue centre with a friend, I fell utterly and instantly in love with a little ball of white and black fluff. His name was Pusscat (not for long, I couldn’t stomach the name Pusscat) and he was a three-month old rejected member of a litter. The rest of the cats in the centre sat indifferent as I walked along the corridor, daring me to show any interest in their future happiness, but Pusscat positioned himself at the very front of his room, meowing an increasingly desperate call the closer I got before sticking his little paw through a gap when I reached him – as if he wanted to shake my hand. It’s rude not to accept a handshake, and I’m a sucker for politeness, so I obliged. He had gigantic eyes and tiny little legs and I immediately decided he was mine. A week later I picked him up and for eighteen months – before he was devastatingly run over by a car – he showed me that everything I’d ever assumed about cats was complete hooey.

I’ve loved cats ever since and if, in thirty years’ time, I find myself single and surrounded by a dozen of them…I think I’d be just fine! But for now I’ll just have to maintain my addiction by befriending other people’s pets. It may not make me a bona fide crazy cat lady, but perhaps it’ll do for now!