Quantifying impacts of agroforestry on soil health

One of the objectives of the REFOREST project is to assess the impacts of agroforestry systems on ecosystem services, particularly soil health. This spring researchers across the REFOREST project’s European network of living labs have been getting their hands dirty assessing soil health using a range of practical measures. Since soil health is ultimately a reflection of a soil’s capacity to deliver key functions, the project aims to assess a suite of properties that will give a direct indication of functions. The soil’s ability to process organic residues and release nutrients is dependent on its biological health, so earthworms are being counted to provide an indication of this function.

Earthworm counting

The wet conditions this year have highlighted the importance of water regulation, particularly good drainage as another key soil function; a single ring infiltration technique has been used to assess rates of water infiltration through the topsoil.

Mick Marston setting up the infiltration test
Mick Marston setting up the infiltration test

Soil compaction is a serious, sometimes invisible, consequence of soil degradation that affects drainage and root growth and subsequent soil and crop health; it can also be a major contributing factor to flooding in agricultural catchments. A penetrometer is being used to document the degree of compaction at different depths in the soil so that researchers can better understand how trees in agricultural systems affect subsoil compaction and health.

The use of a penetrometer to measure soil compaction
Penetrometer in action

The project uses a collaborative approach within its living labs with researchers and farmers working together to collect this data. At Gibside Community Farm in northern England, gardener Mick Marston teamed up with researchers Colin Tosh and Julia Cooper to assess the impacts of their alley cropping agroforestry system on soil health within the tree row and at increasing distances from the trees. The same sampling protocols are being followed at sites across Europe to produce a robust set of data on impacts of agroforestry on soil health.  This is just one of many activities within the REFOREST project that is building the evidence base and tools to accelerate the transition to more widespread adoption of agroforestry systems across the UK and Europe.

This work is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) under the UK government’s Horizon Europe funding guarantee [grant number 10039700].

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