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Catena 42 2001. 361374 www.elsevier.


Human impacts on soil properties and their implications for the sensitivity of soil systems in Scotland
Ian C. Grieve )
Department of Enironmental Science, Uniersity of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA, UK

Abstract Human activities have had pronounced impacts on soil properties. Conifer afforestation in the uplands has caused significant decreases in soil pH and in the quality and turnover of organic matter. Acid deposition has increased soil acidity by a similar amount to conifer afforestation but has been shown to affect soils at greater depths. Acid deposition has also increased the mobility of trace metals in the soil and therefore increased metal concentrations in drainage waters. Applications of sewage sludge to the soil have been shown to increase metal concentrations, although most of the Scottish soils affected have high trace metal binding capacities. Intensification of arable cultivation in the lowlands has reduced organic matter concentrations, structural stability and soil workability, and has had effects on soil erodibility. Human trampling, while highly localised, affects sensitive mountain soils in popular areas, leading to loss of surface organic horizons, and therefore, carbon storage. The future impacts of human activities on the soil may be exacerbated by changing climate, and the need to monitor and predict these will not diminish. q 2001 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Soils; Acidification; Afforestation; Trampling; Cultivation

1. Introduction Soil systems are not static, but are subject to natural changes. These include both directional and cyclic changes. Changes can occur over time scales ranging from days to millennia. Impacts of human activity are superimposed on these natural changes and

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their significance must be evaluated in the light of natural changes. Assessment of the sensitivity of the soil landscape to further change must also take account of natural variability in both space and time. Human impacts are most frequently related to changing patterns of land use. Changes in land use alter the fluxes to or from the soil system andror impose additional stresses on the system. The most significant land use changes affecting soils within the past few decades have been increases in conifer afforestation and agricultural intensification. In addition to the effects of land use change, additional stresses on the soil system have been imposed by factors such as acid deposition, applications of sewage sludge to the land and increased human trampling in sensitive mountain environments. This paper will examine the impact of such recent human-induced changes on soils in Scotland and assess whether we have sufficient quantitative knowledge to predict the sensitivity of soil systems to further perturbations.

2. Conifer afforestation The gradual acidification of upland soils during the postglacial period has accelerated during the last century as new conifer plantations have been established. Forest growth represents a long-term drain on the soils nutrient capital, which can be represented as a net uptake of base cations from the soil Nilsson et al., 1982.. The net acidification of the soil during the life of the crop can be calculated from the age and total base cation content of the crop at the time of harvesting. For sites in Scotland, mean acidification rates range from 14 to 67 mmol c my2 ay1 depending on the growth rate and age of stand at harvesting Nilsson et al., 1982.. Afforestation has measurable effects on soil pH and exchangeable bases, on the carbon to nitrogen ratio of organic matter and on the mobility of aluminium within the system. The magnitude of the changes that can be expected in the western European context is well illustrated by Ranger and Nys 1994. in a comparison of soil properties under old deciduous woodland with those under 60-year-old Norway spruce in northern France. In the A horizon, which is most directly impacted by tree roots, pH decreased by almost 0.5 units and C:N ratio increased from 14 to 19 after 60 years under spruce. These differences were smaller in the deeper soil horizons. They are consistent with those reported in a large number of UK studies of soil properties Grieve, 1978; Williams et al., 1978; Satchell, 1980; Miles, 1985; Moffat and Boswell, 1990.. These studies have, however, largely compared coniferous and deciduous woodland soils. The impacts of afforestation in Scotland may be smaller, as most afforestation in Scotland is on moorland soils which are already acidic. In part, the effects of afforestation are related to changes in the quality of the litter returned to the soil, but they are also linked to the greater efficiency of conifers in scavenging acidic compounds from the atmosphere Miller et al., 1991.. Enhanced capture of acid deposition is the principal factor driving the greater acidity of water draining forested catchments Adamson et al., 1987; Reynolds et al., 1989.. One potentially serious implication of increased acidity of soils under conifers is the increased mobility of aluminium White and Cresser, 1998.. Increased Al concentrations

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Table 1 Differences in Al in the soil solution under forested and moorland sites in the Loch Dee catchment, SW Scotland Forest Mean Al concentration mg ly1 . Standard deviation N 2.45 2.06 73 Moorland 1.02 1.10 70

in soil water and drainage water have detrimental effects on root growth and on freshwater organisms, respectively. Table 1 shows the mean concentrations of aluminium in soil solutions from surface peaty horizons and subsurface mineral horizons under moorland and under Sitka spruce plantations in the Loch Dee catchment in SW Scotland. Solutions were extracted by centrifugation of samples collected at monthly intervals over a period of 15 months. Aluminium concentrations in soil solutions from the conifer forest were more than twice those in moorland soil solutions p - 0.05..

3. Acid deposition Acid deposition represents a new input to the soil system within the last 50 or so years. Environmental effects are wide-ranging and include impacts on tree health and drainage water quality. They are, however, difficult to quantify and have complex interactions with other environmental controls such as afforestation. Within the soil system, acid inputs are neutralised by loss of base cations from the cation exchange complex or by weathering of soil minerals Zulla and Billett, 1994; Billett and Cresser, 1996; Langan et al., 1996.. Re-analysis of soils first sampled early in the present century in Sweden has given us a good basis for estimating the impact on soil acidity Tamm and Hallbacken, 1988.. In northern Sweden, pH in the upper soil horizons has decreased by around 0.4 units but in the subsoil it has not changed significantly. The magnitude and location of these changes are similar to those resulting from conifer afforestation, as discussed in the preceding section. In southern Sweden, where the impact of acid deposition has been more severe, pH in the upper soil horizons decreased by 0.3 units, but in the subsoil it decreased by 0.65 units Tamm and Hallbacken, 1988.. Changes of a similar magnitude and pattern within the soil profile have been reported from other sites in Scandinavia Falkengren-Grerup, 1987; Eriksson et al., 1992. and in NE Scotland Billett et al., 1988, 1990.. Acidification due to forest growth over time periods of 3060 years considered in these studies is probably confined to the upper soil horizons as the accompanying organic anions are relatively immobile Tamm and Hallbacken, 1988.. Subsoil acidification is more likely to be due to acid deposition as the Hq ions from this source are accompanied by mobile anions such as sulphate and nitrate. These are not adsorbed or decomposed in the upper soil horizons and the associated acidity therefore affects the deeper soil horizons Billett et al., 1990.. Soil sensitivity to acid deposition can be assessed relatively simply from soil properties such as base saturation or pH, or from bedrock geology Langan and Wilson,


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1992; Starr et al., 1996.. However, simple cation exchange models take insufficient account of the feedback and buffering mechanisms within the soil. Fig. 1 contrasts the response of a podzol B horizon derived from acidic metamorphic rocks with that of a less acidic cambisol derived from basic lavas. Both soils were leached with artificial acid rain and pH, Ca, Mg, Al and SO4 were monitored in the leachate. The cambisol initially released Ca and Mg to neutralise the added acidity, and Al concentrations increased when the readily available Ca and Mg were depleted. Sulphate concentrations did not vary significantly over the time period. In the podzol, calcium and magnesium concentrations were very low and made virtually no contribution to neutralisation. Acid sulphate additions were adsorbed and Al concentrations only increased significantly

Fig. 1. Sulphate diamonds., aluminium circles. and calciumqmagnesium triangles. concentrations mmol ly1 . in drainage water from two soils leached with artificial acid rain.

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when the soils sulphate adsorption capacity was exceeded and the sulphate concentrations of the leachate had increased to near that of the artificial rain Grieve, 1999.. The opposite response, in the form of a delayed improvement in drainage water quality when sulphate concentrations in artifical rainwater were decreased, has been reported by Hodson and Langan 1999.. Assessments at the site scale must therefore be based on models which include all relevant aspects of soil chemistry and hydrology Helliwell et al., 1998; Barton et al., 1999..

4. Applications of sewage sludge to agricultural land The recycling of sewage sludge to agricultural land will continue to increase in the next decade as a result of EC regulations restricting other routes of disposal Anderson, 1992; Towers and Horne, 1997.. Sewage sludge has considerable agronomic benefits as a source of nitrogen, phosphorus and organic matter Aitken, 1996., but also the potential to increase eutrophication of fresh waters Bailey-Watts and Kirika, 1999. and fluxes of greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide from the soil Scott et al., 2000.. Applications of sludge can contribute to carbon mitigation, although the magnitude of the contribution is substantially less than that of other land management strategies Smith et al., 2000.. The principal adverse impact of sewage sludge applications to agricultural land is in the input of heavy metals, principally Cd, Zn, Cu, Pb and Ni Towers and Horne, 1997.. Plant uptake, principally of Cd, Zn and Ni, is the main pathway by which metals enter the food chain, with greatest uptake in acidic or coarse textured soils Hooda et al., 1997.. Metals from sewage sludge may also have adverse effects on soil faunal populations Bruce et al., 1997.. A recent assessment of the sensitivity of Scottish soils to metal inputs from sewage sludge Towers and Paterson, 1997. found that the majority of Scottish soils have strong or very strong metal binding capacity at their current pH level. Very few sites had low or very low metal binding capacity. Only 8 out of 165 sites therefore had a high risk of water pollution by heavy metals. However, soil acidification could significantly increase the number of soils in the lower binding capacity classes Towers and Paterson, 1997..

5. Agricultural intensification Increased specialisation within agriculture has probably the greatest potential detrimental impact on lowland soil systems. Within recent decades, one key impact has been the decrease in soil organic matter concentrations under all-arable systems. Decreases, often to less than 2%, have been reported widely in soils from arable areas of England e.g. Douglas et al., 1986.. In Scotland, organic matter concentrations are generally greater but concentrations in arable soils are still substantially less than in grassland soils. Chaney and Swift 1984. compared organic matter and aggregate stability in Scottish soils from a range of parent materials under grassland and arable cultivation. The mean organic matter for the soils under arable cultivation was 3.3%, less than half


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the mean of 6.95% under grass. Such differences are partly related to reduced inputs of organic matter under cultivation, because carbon is lost when a crop is harvested and there are no animal inputs. In addition, the water stable aggregates which protect the organic matter within them from decomposition by micro-organisms Angers et al., 1997. are disrupted by cultivation making the organic matter more accessible to decomposer organisms. The impacts of decreased organic matter are illustrated in Table 2, which compares organic carbon, percentage water stable aggregates and plastic limit moisture content in soils under long-term grass and after 7 years of cereal cultivation on a farm on the Carse of Stirling Molope et al., 1987.. Although carbon concentration decreased only slightly in the short time under cereal cultivation, there was an almost complete loss of water stable aggregates. This resulted partly from weakening of bonds within aggregates, but also from an increase in the rate of water absorption by crumbs with lower organic matter contents Grieve, 1980.. Structural differences may also occur when soil faunal particularly earthworm. populations decrease when grass soils are cultivated Boag et al., 1997.. With weaker aggregates there is an increased likelihood of slaking and crust formation under rain impact Le Bissonnais and Arrouyas, 1997., which in turn can restrict seedling emergence DeBoodt, 1979.. There was also a small decrease in the plastic limit moisture content of the arable soil Table 2., and a strong correlation r s 0.89, Fig. 2. between organic carbon and plastic limit moisture content. Intensive agriculture may lead to significant compaction of the soil through increased traffic on the soil surface and the increased mass of farm machinery Ball et al., 1997.. Compaction problems may be lessened by reduced cultivation or by modifications to the tracks or wheels of farm machinery Stewart et al., 1998., but careful timing of farming operations remains essential for preserving structural quality Ball et al., 1997.. A decrease in the plastic limit moisture content restricts the length of time, particularly in the autumn, during which machinery can be used on the soil Grieve, 1980.. This is of particular concern because climate change resulting in increased rainfall totals and soil wetness Kerr et al., 1999. will also contribute to a reduction in available workdays in Scotland Cooper et al., 1997.. Increases in soil erodibility can result from decreases in organic matter and aggregate stability Le Bissonnais and Arrouyas, 1997.. However, soil erosion incidence in Scotland has been related to cultivation practices such as winter-sown cereals or ploughing up and down slopes rather than increases in soil erodibility Kirkbride and Reeves, 1993; Davidson and Harrison, 1995.. Extreme hydrological events such as snowmelt have also been shown to be important in triggering erosion Wade and Kirkbride, 1998.. Whether soil erosion is a serious problem on Scottish soils derived
Table 2 Organic carbon C., water-stable aggregation WSA. and plastic limit moisture content PL. for clay soil under grassland and arable land use C %. Cereals Grass 4.01 4.68 WSA %. 2.0 42.0 PL %. 41.0 48.2

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Fig. 2. Relationship between soil carbon and plastic limit moisture content for a clay soil, Stirling.

mainly from unconsolidated sediments has been the subject of some debate Frost and Speirs, 1996., but soil erosion represents an economic loss of fertile topsoil and nutrients. Accelerated erosion also has ecological impacts on the freshwater systems receiving increased sediment and nutrient loads He et al., 1995; Maguire et al., 1998.. Accelerated erosion may also have implications for the preservation of subsurface archaeological features important in the cultural heritage. As topsoil is lost, ploughing may increasingly affect features such as postholes in the subsoil. The pattern of surface lowering over the last 40 years at a crop mark site in Perthshire has been determined by 137 Cs budgets in the soil. The estimated erosion rate of 0.5 mm ay1 at the site has been shown to represent a significant threat to the subsurface archaeology, with an increasing probability of ploughing damage as the surface is lowered Davidson et al., 1998..

6. Human trampling Effects of human trampling on vegetation communities have been widely reported Cole and Bayfield, 1993.. They can affect soil development as the protective vegetation cover is damaged and soil is exposed to wind and water erosion. These impacts are increasing because of the large increases in the number of hillwalkers in recent decades Lance et al., 1991.. On a national scale, the problem of footpath erosion in Scotland has been shown to be relatively small, but damage is concentrated in the more popular mountain areas Grieve et al., 1995.. There is an extensive and increasingly heavily used network of paths on the Cairngorm plateau at elevations of 1000 m and above Watson, 1984; Lance et al., 1991.. Damage due to trampling is concentrated in areas such as the larger cols. High


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Fig. 3. Organic matter distributions and total organic matter content in soils under complete shaded. and disturbed vegetation cover, Beinn Avon, Cairngorms.

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Fig. 4. Organic matter distributions and total organic matter content in soils under complete shaded. and disturbed vegetation cover, Braeriach, Cairngorms.

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Fig. 5. Organic matter distributions and total organic matter content in soils under complete shaded. and disturbed vegetation cover, Cairn Gorm.

I.C. Grieer Catena 42 (2001) 361374 Table 3 Comparison of organic matter in soil profiles at vegetated and disturbed sites Vegetated sites Mean organic matter kg my2 . Standard deviation Sample size 11.16 5.14 21 Disturbed sites 5.24 2.60 22


windspeeds deflate the surface at these exposed sites, which may also have evidence of active periglacial processes such as stone stripes. Figs. 35 show the distribution of soil organic matter with depth at 11 sites sampled in three cols on the plateau and, for each profile, the total organic matter as kg my2 . Profiles A3 and A8 Fig. 3. were in areas of active stone stripes. Horizon development was very limited and total soil carbon less than 6 kg my2 . A9 and A10 Fig. 3. were vegetated and disturbed sites, respectively, located a few metres apart. At A10, the illuvial horizon of maximum iron and organic matter was less deep than at A9 and the organic matter in the upper horizon was significantly less. Total organic matter under the disturbed vegetation was only about 70% of that in the vegetated profile. Similar trends are evident when partly vegetated profiles B2 and B3 are compared with neighbouring vegetated profiles B1 and B4 Fig. 4.. Organic matter content of the disturbed profiles was between 40% and 65% of that in the vegetated profiles. In the third col, the profiles were shallower and the soil horizons less well defined Fig. 5.. Vegetation disturbance was again accompanied by loss of the upper organic horizon and a decrease in total organic matter in the soil. When data from 43 sites across a wide range of geomorphological situations on the Cairngorm plateau were analysed, there was a statistically significant difference between the total organic matter in soil profiles where the vegetation was disturbed and those where the vegetation cover was complete. The mean organic matter under disturbed vegetation was less than half that under a complete vegetation cover Table 3.. This difference was similar in magnitude at sites where vegetation disturbance was more strongly influenced by human trampling and where natural cryoturbation processes were predominant.

7. Conclusions These examples all indicate that soil change due to the impact of human activities over the last few decades has been significant. Many changes take place slowly and cannot be studied by classical experimental science. We have thus been reliant on observing and monitoring change in the field. Isolation and quantification of the effects of human disturbance from such an approach carries two linked problems. Human impacts often interact. It is thus difficult to separate the effects of acid deposition on the soil from those of conifer afforestation, and indeed the plantation of conifers may exacerbate the impacts of acid deposition.


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Human impacts may have the same end result as natural processes. Human trampling thus has an effect on organic matter storage in the soils of the Cairngorm plateau, which is very similar to that of natural geomorphological processes. Future human impacts on the soil system will take place under conditions of changing climate. Current scenarios suggest that Scotland will become warmer, particularly in the winter, and that rainfall totals will increase, particularly in the autumn and winter Kerr et al., 1999.. Scottish soils also represent a significant store of terrestrial carbon in Great Britain Howard et al., 1995; Milne and Brown, 1997.. Our need to monitor and predict the sensitivity of the soil system to changes in human activities will therefore remain an essential component in the maintenance of soil quality.

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