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Scotland’s soils are an important natural resource providing a wide range of benefits for people, the environment and the economy. It is essential to protect soils to ensure they are able to continue to provide these benefits for future generations.

Why are soils important?  

Soils are a vital natural resource as they carry out a wide range of essential functions, such as growing food and timber, controlling the quality and quantity of water flow, supporting valuable habitats and species, and storing carbon. Although we may not realise it, soils affect many parts of our everyday lives. 

Soils can carry out more than one function at a time and so can provide a range of different benefits in the same place. Another way of looking at benefits from soil is through ecosystem services.

Soils need to be healthy – that is in a good state – to be able to provide all these benefits. Soil quality is defined as the ability of soil to carry out its functions. However, soil can be improved or damaged by a range of processes caused by a variety of pressures. These can be caused by natural factors such as climate, or by us. We can improve or damage soils through decisions we make on how we use and manage our land.

Soil damaged to such an extent that it can no longer carry out its functions, can have an effect on the wider environment as well as the economy and people. For example, greenhouse gas emissions from soils can contribute to climate change while soil eroded into rivers and lochs can damage the water environment.

We need to look after our soil to ensure it continues to provide us with the benefits we expect and so that it can continue to do so for future generations.

Further information on Scotland’s soils can be found on Scotland’s soils website and key points outlined on Scotland’s Environment website . The State of Soil report is also available.

State of Environment reporting

SEPA has a duty to compile information on the general state of the environment under the Environment Act 1995

  • State of Scotland’s Soil Report: The Natural Scotland report “The State of Scotland’s Soil” was published in 2011. The development of the report was led by SEPA and written in conjunction with a wide range of partners across Scotland. The report highlights the importance of soil in an environmental, social and economic context. It outlines the key properties of Scotland’s soils, the pressures on them, what drives these pressures, and the consequences that any changes have for soil and the wider environment. The report describes the state of Scotland’s soil to the extent that current knowledge allows, and identifies how and where improvements could be made to both the state of soil and our understanding of it.
  • State of Contaminated Land Report: SEPA published a national State of Contaminated Land Report “Dealing with land contamination in Scotland” in 2009 which showed the extent of contaminated and potentially contaminated land in Scotland. The local authorities are the lead regulators for the contaminated land regime under Part 11A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and are responsible for assessing and identifying contaminated land and designating special sites. For further information see Contaminated land pages.  

Soil protection

There is a range of legislation which (often indirectly) protects some aspects of soil functions but there is no overarching piece of legislation in place which provides protection for all soils from all threats. This is addressed in the Scottish Government’s Scottish Soil Framework.

The main regulations which SEPA are responsible for which directly affect soil include:

We also have duties and responsibilities under a range of other legislation which affect, or are affected by, soil including:

As a statutory consultee in the planning system we also provide advice to planning authorities to help ensure that proposed developments minimise their impact on soils and the carbon stored within them. Further information can be found in SEPA’s Position Statement on Planning and Soils.  

The importance of good soil quality and its connections with the wider environment and human health are recognised in SEPA’s position statement on land protection. This takes an integrated approach to environmental protection and considers the wide range of legislation and policies relating to soil and land that affect, and are affected by, water, air, climate, biodiversity and human health.     

Application of organic materials to land

The application of organic materials to land can have a number of benefits, such as the addition of nutrients which can help crops grow. This activity is regulated under either The Sludge (Use in Agriculture) Regulations (1989) (Sludge Regs)  or the Waste Management Licensing (Scotland) Regulations (2011) (WML Regs) depending on the material applied and its purpose. However, we have to ensure that these materials are applied at a beneficial rate. It is also essential to ensure that there are no other potential pollutants in the materials applied that could cause harm to the environment or human health. SEPA therefore assess all applications for exemptions from the WML Regs. In addition, we audit the sludge registers provided to us by sludge operators to assess compliance with the regulations. Organic materials can also be applied to help restore soil and Guidance on the suitable organic material applications for land restoration and improvement has been developed.

In addition, SEPA commissioned research to review restoration achievements at opencast coal mines using sewage sludge applications. The reports provides a number of recommendations how organic materials used in land restoration can be improved.

For further information on activities exempt from waste management licensing see our waste regulation pages.

Between 2007 and 2014, SEPA carried out soil compliance monitoring to ensure the application of organic materials to land complied with regulations. Further information can be found in our soil compliance monitoring reports:

Effect of soil on wider environment - diffuse pollution

Soil erosion is one of the main contributors to diffuse water pollution. Soil erosion is a natural process that can be (but not exclusively) made worse by extreme weather events and / or poor land management. Soil particles, and anything attached to them, can be transferred into water courses, potentially smothering the river bed and / or causing water pollution. 

SEPA assesses rivers at high risk from diffuse pollution and notes breaches of The Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011, General Binding Rules (GBRs).  We then discuss with the land manager what actions could be taken to improve land management and so prevent these breaches in future.

Research and development

SEPA commissions research to provide further information on soil related issues to help us carry out our duties and to help us develop more effective policies.

Recent projects carried out to provide information on soils include:

Contact us

If you have any questions or require any further information or advice on any aspect of soil, please contact us.