Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Soil Bio Hedge

Exciting news that Jonathan Leake (Sheffield) and colleagues have been awarded a NERC Soils Consortium grant. These things read a bit like football team line ups in terms of numbers. This grant involves:
Mike Burrell, Rob Freckleton, Steve Banwart, Duncan Cameron, Dylan Childs, Jill Edmonson (Sheffield); myself and Thorunn Helgason (York) and Les Firbanks, Joe Holden, Richard Grayson and Pippa Chapman (Leeds). 

The project (called Soil Bio Hedge) aims to:

"Deliver an integrated and predictive understanding of the mechanisms by which soil biota and soil functions resist, and recover, from impacts of conventional arable farming - compounded by extreme climatic events.  
Determine the spatial and temporal scales over which recovery occurs with particular focus on the role of dispersal of the ecosystem bio-engineers - earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi - from hedgerow and field margin reservoirs to leys that promote soil restoration.
Establish an integrative and predictive spatial-temporal model of soil quality change at field-to-landscape-scale integrating the role of dispersal of hedgerow and field margin biodiversity into arable land resulting from land use and management change involving grass-clover leys.  "

Can't wait to get started with the earthworm surveys in early April. Here are a bunch of us scoping out where to put in soil transects establishing ley strips in arable fields and arable strips in grasslands last week on a day when we had sleet, rain and sun, all within an hour or two of each other.
Pondering soil transects at Spens farm

Robots and worms - worm scans rather than CAT scans?

Just at the end of the year I visited Prof. Sacha Mooney at Nottingham University to look at the Hounsfield X-ray tomography facility. In brief X-ray tomography allows you to take images of stuff that isn't see through to visible light. I was interested in whether we could use it to see earthworms in soil.

The facility itself is funded primarily to take photos of the root structure of different genotypes of wheat as part of a project designed to optimise wheat varieties for food production. The whole thing is very impressive.

There is a big greenhouse full of drainpipes in which the wheat is growing. A robot trundles round this greenhouse picking up the drainpipes and taking them to the tomography unit.
You can see the robot behind the plants in drainpipes here.
The robot picks up a drainpipe and brings it towards the tomography unit. You can see the door to the tomography unit beginning to open.
The robot deposits the drainpipe and retreats.
On the other side of the door another robot picks up the drainpipe and puts it in the scanner.
 We also had drainpipes (with soil and earthworms) but we used a smaller scanner to look at them.

A smaller scanner unit that we used to scan our 30 cm high 12 cm diameter drainpipes

It took about 30 minutes scan time then some processing time by senior research fellow and X-ray tomography whizz Craig Sturrock to produce the following film in which you can see the earthworms in pink and the burrows in yellow. So now we can actually see where earthworms are in the soil. Incredible.

The other nice thing about visiting Nottingham is East Midlands Parkway - you get an excellent view of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar cooling towers!

Cooling towers at East Midlands Parkway train station