status: Active

Collective approach to improving soil health in the Westmorland Dales

Seven farms in the Westmorland Dales will be supported to develop a 'toolkit' of the most practical, useful indicators of soil health in northern upland farming. The cluster will then work with advisors to implement changes to management practices which can be monitored using the toolkit.

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Field Lab Timeline

    10/24/2020 11:00:00 PM
  • Development of field lab in cluster group meetings

    Development of field lab in cluster group meetings
  • 1/13/2021 12:00:00 AM
  • Field lab funding confirmed

    Field lab funding confirmed
  • 1/29/2021 12:00:00 AM
  • Virtual meeting to co-design data collection

    Virtual meeting to co-design data collection
  • 2/15/2021 12:00:00 AM
  • Collection of winter baseline data at farm holdings

    Collection of winter baseline data at farm holdings
  • 3/15/2021 12:00:00 AM
  • On farm event to demonstrate low-cost soil measures

    On farm event to demonstrate low-cost soil measures
  • 5/14/2021 11:00:00 PM
  • Comparison of measures

    Comparison of measures
  • 6/14/2021 11:00:00 PM
  • Series of land management events

    Series of land management events
  • 6/29/2021 11:00:00 PM
  • Collection of summer baseline data

    Collection of summer baseline data
  • 7/29/2021 11:00:00 PM
  • Management measures implemented

    Management measures implemented
  • 8/31/2021 11:00:00 PM
  • Baseline data collection (end of summer)

    Baseline data collection (end of summer)
  • 1/15/2024 12:00:00 AM
  • Final field lab report

    Final field lab report
For further information hover over the above milestone marks
  • Discussion

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  • Achievements

    April 2022

    Soil test results

    The group met at the end of April to discuss the results from soil tests analysed by a research student (Finley) at Lancaster University. Working under supervision of Dr Rachel Marshall, he carried out a variety of tests (including soil organic matter (SOM), pH, bulk density and infiltration rates) across a range of differently managed grassland and silage fields across the cluster. 17 fields were chosen across the cluster with the aim of getting a range of management types defined by an intensity scale developed by Finley.

    Finley found that SOM varied across the different management types with higher content in the less intensively managed fields. There was a lot of variation in SOM within fields that were less intensively managed reflecting the fact that these fields were more variable in character compared to silage fields (which are generally more homogeneous). All fields had relatively high SOM and were in the normal range for the soil type and area. pH increased with more intensive management. Infiltration rates were measured at one point in each field and a general trend of decreasing infiltration rate was observed as management became more intensive although more sampling would be required to be able to see if trends were significant.

    The results were interesting as they showed that there were substantial differences in soil characteristics across the cluster but it was hard to see clear trends due to the underlying differences in landscape type and underlying geology. In the next stage of the work the cluster will look at making comparisons between pairs of fields that are relatively close to each other but differ in land management. The research team and an RSPB advisor are supporting with field choices.

    Milestone: Comparison of measures

    June 2021

    Group training, comparing soil health of two fields

    The group met in June with researchers from CEH and an advisor from Cumbria Wildlife Trust. We looked at soil samples from two neighbouring fields which had been managed differently. One was a regenerated hay meadow; the other had been managed with slurry and fertiliser applications albeit minimal. The researchers introduced us to various assessments, including:

    • Visual: The soil from the hay meadow was darker which indicates higher organic matter, and, in turn would indicate more carbon. The soil from the hay meadow also showed a different rooting structure.

    • Smell: Both soils smelled sweet, indicating healthy soil

    • Infiltration rate (how easily water/rainfall soaks into soils): Both soils showed similar results which is in line with the fact that there had been little or no compaction. Visually, the hay meadow appeared to have a higher soil moisture content and held more water. This will be key attribute in supporting water management in the changing weather and flash flooding experienced in the area.

    Soil aggregation: Soil was placed in a small bag and shaken to show how quickly the soil broke up and dispersed out of the bag. Both soils showed good aggregation and there were few differences between the two.

    For comparison we also looked at farm woodland soil which was darkest in colour. We also introduced the potential to use a Nix colour checker ( as a potential tool for determining soil colour. This offers a route for cheap estimation of soil carbon content and might be an interesting tool to test on soils across the farms in the cluster.

    If you like to try out some of the different measurements we demonstrated in the field, advice and guidance on these can be found at:
    • Visual Assessment of Soil Structure (VESS):
    • Soil Mentor: Describes a number of different soil tests:

    Milestone: On farm event to demonstrate low-cost soil measures

    June 2021

    Upcoming summer measurements

    An undergraduate from Lancaster University will hopefully join the field lab and work alongside the ecologists to identify good indicators of soil health. The researcher at Lancaster University will meet in early July with the student and together will contact all the farmers in the group, selecting fields to study across their farms. They will identify a number of fields across the management spectrum to represent a range of management intensities typical of the area.

    Soil sampling will likely take place during the last week of July. Analysis will take place August/ September and data will be available to share in a face to face meeting in October. At this point we can discuss next steps which might include looking at measuring nutrients both above and below ground as well as soil health and structure and whether the two are mutually dependent.

    Milestone: Baseline data collection (end of summer)

    February 2021

    Trial design

    Seven farmers from the newly-launched Orton Fells Farm Cluster have joined together in this field lab alongside researchers from Lancaster University and local conservationists to collectively define what soil health looks like in the area.


    Some simple measures that farmers can take ownership of and some more technical approaches will be tested. If simple approaches provide useful data for monitoring restoration and regeneration of landscapes, it becomes much more feasible from a cost perspective to monitor soil health over at a farm scale. This is of research interest as there are a number of expensive technical approaches being developed (and sold) to measure soil health, including genetic identification of soil organisms and soil respiration kits.

    With a number of contrasting host farms involved, this field lab will trial the use of selected key indicators of soil health and evaluate the practicality and data quality obtained with each. The output will be a toolkit for farmer-led monitoring of soil health parameters.

    The group have met to co-design methodology for baseline data collection. The researcher has visited each site to assist each farmer with sampling choices.

    Assessments will include:
    • Soil organic matter
    • Carbon fractionation (which tells you about the stability of the carbon in the soil)
    • Nutrients
    • Soil structure
    • Infiltration
    • Soil loss
    • Biodiversity measures (such as earthworms, micro-inverts)

    The group will look to link these with measures of plant growth/nutrition including productivity and forage quality

    Milestone: Field lab funding confirmed

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