Plotting a new course – soil experiment field is on the move

An Aberdeen crop trial field which has been providing Britain’s farmers with vital scientific data for 60 years is being dug up and transported a mile along the road.

Professor Christine Watson

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND, 2021: Professor Christine Watson, SRUC at the new research site with the different soils samples.
(Photo: Ross Johnston/Newsline Media)

Around 450 tonnes of soil – the equivalent of 90 full-grown elephants – is being taken by tractor and trailer from Woodlands Field at Craibstone to a pre-prepared field nearby to “preserve the unique historical legacy of the soil’s management”.

The soil will be used for new research to better understand the relationships between acidity, carbon and nutrient dynamics and help design agricultural systems with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Operated by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), Woodlands Field has been home to a pH gradient rotational experiment since 1961.

The maintenance of the soils at different pHs (levels of acidity) from 4.5 (very acid) to 7.5 (alkaline) has resulted in a range of chemical environments and microbial communities which create a unique facility for investigating how soils, plants and microbes work together to influence productivity as well as address important questions about carbon dynamics in soils.

But with the Woodlands Field site now earmarked for housing, the soils from the pH experiment will be used for new research. This is thanks to a partnership with the University of Aberdeen, which owns the recipient field at Ashtown – the steading next door to Craibstone.

The two institutions have created the Aberdeen Cropping systems Experimental (ACE) platform, which not only secures the legacy of the Woodlands Field long-term experiments but has the potential to reinvigorate cropping systems research in the North East of Scotland.

The partnership hopes to develop and fund additional crop and soil experiments and instrumentation at the new site. These will address issues such as climate change, carbon sequestration, novel crops and alternative inputs as well as assess the impacts of extreme soil environments on crop productivity and soil functioning.

Professor Christine Watson from SRUC, who is leading the project, said: “This is a unique opportunity to build on the heritage of decades of experimentation at Craibstone in a way which allows us to combine modern experimental design and unique soil microbiomes to address critical questions around the role of soil health in future agricultural systems.

“The partnership with the University of Aberdeen brings together a strong team of plant and soil scientists with the capacity to bring national and international research funding to this new experimental platform.”

Professor Paul Hallett, who co-ordinates the MSc Soil Science at the University of Aberdeen, said: “From the climate emergency to the threats of soil degradation on food security, this revamp of SRUC’s classic field experiments provides an excellent resource on our doorstep to help tackle these challenges. Through this partnership with SRUC our teaching and research on these important topics will benefit considerably.”

The unusual excavation work is being overseen by Scott Campbell from I & N Campbell Excavations.

Scott, a former student at SRUC’s Craibstone campus and an award-winning farmer at Kirkton of Kinellar, said: “This is by far the most complex topsoil movement we’ve ever done, but the team at SRUC has done an excellent job of marking out and labelling everything, while Iain and Neil Campbell’s experience has helped greatly with the accuracy required. It’s taken 125 loads but we’ve been very lucky with the weather.

“As a former SRUC student, it’s a privilege to be able to help ensure that the trial plots continue. I benefited from it when I was at Craibstone and hopefully, my two-year-old son Blair and baby daughter Eilidh will benefit from it if they go to SRUC.”

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