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Drought-hit fenland soils in Cambridgeshire are leaking 112 times as much carbon as nearby peat-free fields, says a study. Fields leak carbon as drought threatens soil

• Lack of rain degrades fenland fields

• Big impact on vegetable production

• Concern for local farm businesses

Drought-hit fenland soils in Cambridgeshire are leaking 112 times as much carbon as nearby peat-free fields, says a study.

Lack of rain has dried out vegetable-growing fenland soils which are releasing on average 1344t of CO2 per km² per year, suggests an analysis of government data by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU).

East Anglia remains in drought following lack of rain last year, according to the Environment Agency.The Fens are one of the UK’s driest regions, receiving a similar rainfall amount of rainfall to parts of the Middle East.

Degradation

Dry peat soils release carbon to the atmosphere and are exposed to wind and rain. They are susceptible to being blown and washed away – degradation which means they are less able to store water when rain does fall.

Parts of the Fens may start to run out of water in as little as five years – worrying for an area where food production supports 80,000 jobs, generates £3bn per year and produces one third of England’s vegetables.

ECIU land use analyst Matt Williams said: “The bedrock of our food security is our soil. Supporting farmers to preserve their soils, plant trees and hedgerows to reduce erosion from wind and extreme rainfall will ultimately protect our yields.

Food security

“Rewarding farmers for ploughing less often or for growing crops that absorb nutrients from the atmosphere and return them to the soil are simple steps in the right direction.”

To ensure UK food security in the face of climate change, Mr Williams says other parts of the country may have to grow vegetables.

“These are complex issues and more research is needed to understand the dynamics and the solutions.”

The government’s 25 Year Environment Plan for England set a target for all peat soils to be sustainably managed by 2030.

Announced in 2018, Defra’s ELM scheme aims to encourage farmers to take measures that improve soil health.

The peat action plan for England established a Lowland Agricultural Peat Task Force to examine the challenges facing these soils.

Farmers are facing additional costs for fertilisers which have risen because of a surge in the price of gas.

This has already led to some growers choosing not to plant crops – despite shortages of lettuce and other salad crops.