The soils of the Somerset Levels and Catchment have two important roles; the presence of significant areas of peat soils that act as a store of organic carbon and the ability of farmland soils to store rainfall and reduce the risk of flooding.
The importance of soils to our national wellbeing is sometimes ignored. Fertile and healthy soil is necessary for agricultural productivity, the nutritional content of food, for water and carbon cycles and for biodiversity yet our soil is in trouble. Changed farming practices and inappropriate development have damaged soil composition and capacity. The cultivation or fertilisation of undesignated flower-rich grassland, drainage of wet grassland, ploughing of permanent pasture, the removal of hedgerows, the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the pollution of rivers from slurry and the erosion of soils left bare in winter from late harvested crops all impact on soil structure and health. It has been estimated that, unless we change the way we manage our soils they will only produce harvest for about another one hundred years – A frightening prospect! The change of land use through development too often ignores environmental issues and can be polluting and damaging to biodiversity of the region.
Agriculture is the dominant land use in the Catchment accounting for around 79% of the land area. It is estimated that around 7,500 people are employed in agriculture in milk, beef, lamb and wheat production that generates an economic worth of around £257 million. Farmers also received payments from the Common Agricultural Policy in the form of the Basic Payment and Environmental Management schemes estimated to be worth upward of £33 million. Following Brexit it is likely that the UK Treasury will seek to reduce farm income support payments or insist on subsidies linked to improvements. New incentives may need to be found for farmers who currently get EU grants for keeping land as pasture and clearing scrub and trees. The current Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove, has indicated that future payments will only be made for woodland creation, habitat protection, caring for treasured landscapes and higher animal welfare.