By Chloe Brown
The muddy puddle at the heart of Lark Rise Farm and its compelling signal for us all to become a generation of ‘soil stewards’.
The long and distinctive forked tail of a swallow cutting through British skies is a sight synonymous to spring. Heralding the start of a new season, their return from wintering in Africa precedes a change in climate and mood. At Lark Rise Farm these avian architects are busy nimbly tucking their cup shaped mud nests into sheltered locations. Like its passerine fellow the house martin, when it comes to nest making, the swallow relies on glorious mud and its glue-like properties. So, to those in the know, it was of no insignificance when the Countryside Restoration Trust’s Chairman Robin Page erected a sign in the farm’s courtyard, alerting visitors to an important accumulation of the sticky substance.
It reads: ‘Please avoid this puddle as swallows and house martins are using the mud for nest building and repairs’. Flying into the Twittersphere, this simple message was met with instant approval from CRT followers. Reminding us of the part we play in protecting wildlife within a busy farm hub, the sign also displays how vital it is to educate and thereby increase society’s environmental awareness. With less than 10% of children having access to wild spaces, compared to 40% a generation ago, this worrying decline needs to be reversed. Famously, Richard Louv coined the phrase ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ to describe the problems associated with children’s disconnection from nature. But whilst children need nature to satisfy their physical, emotional and educational needs, nature also needs children. ‘No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced’ observes David Attenborough.
Inspired by the simple symbolism of protecting a muddy puddle the CRT wants to reconnect adults and children with nature through its #MuddyUpBritain campaign. Jumping in muddy puddles and building mud kitchens are the quintessential joys of outdoor play, but discovering the complexities of one of its key properties, soil, holds a sobering and important lesson for us all.
Soil is intrinsic to mud and our soil’s biology is fundamental to farming. However, intense levels of farming are damaging the UK’s soil quality. Deep ploughing, rapid crop rotation and ever-larger tree-free fields, are allowing the wind and rain to carry away the fertile topsoil. According to the Soil Association, it can take ‘a thousand years for just one centimetre of topsoil to form, and right now (globally) we’re losing the equivalent of 30 football pitches of fertile soil every minute’. With 95% of food production relying on soil, the global nature of our food system makes soil health a matter of international concern. Soils also house an astonishing quarter of the Earth’s biodiversity, brimming with organisms such as bacteria, fungi and earthworms. Depletion in the health of our soils has a monumental effect not only on the quality of our food production, ability to store water effectively, but also upon levels of CO2.
The unique profile of each farm only magnifies the complex challenge of how best to conserve our soils. A farm with kinder lighter soils may embrace one soil saving technique, whereas the heavy wet soils of its counterpart prevent such action. Arguably, there is no clear-cut solution, but one that relies on a concerted effort by each individual. For Tenant Farmer Tim Scott at CRT’s Lark Rise Farm, overwintered stubble and non-inversion tillage has had a dual benefit to his farmland soil. He says ‘when I came to cultivate this February, I noticed a significant increase in the number of worms. By not destroying the profile of the soil these invertebrates were encouraged to thrive. Additionally, leaving the stubble until spring has provided invaluable seed food for birds and supported the local ecosystem’.
With soil degradation currently costing England and Wales between £0.9 and £1.4bn per year, it is a critical time for us to understand the needs of our soil and how we can be effective guardians of its future. The Conservative’s 2015 manifesto projected a 25-year plan to ‘grow more, buy more and sell more British food’, but without properly safeguarding the precious resource under our feet, such ambitions will never be realised. For now, we can act by committing to education at a grass roots level in order to help harvest a generation of soil stewards. Just as the swallow heralds the start of spring, we must become a harbinger for change, joining a movement to better care for our soil. If mud is the tool and catalyst to make these more serious issues fun (through campaigns like #MuddyUpBritain), let’s hope the substance helps these messages stick steadfastly to those who learn.
 Wildlife and Countryside: http://www.wcl.org.uk
 Richard Louv, ‘Last Child in the Woods’ (2005)
 Securing UK Soil Health, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (2015) http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/POST-PN-0502
 Defra, 2012 report
 Conservative Manifesto, 2015