Fertility – Less or More?

A few of us have been discussing, among other things, soil fertility, pastoralism, deforestation, reforestation, agriculture (of course) and permaculture-type solutions for restoring the ecologies impoverished by this culture over on this Leaving Babylon thread. Here’s my most recent contribution on the topic of soil fertility vs. conservation:


I’ve been thinking lots lately about this issue of soil fertility. On the one hand we’re living through a period of extraordinary fertility thanks to the nitrates and phosphates in petroleum-based fertilisers – ‘more atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by man (as fertilizer) than by all natural sources combined’ (Ken Thompson, No Nettles Required, p.160) – and all gardening and farming is geared towards maintaining or increasing this. And on the other hand we have a legacy of plant and animal species uniquely adapted to the impoverished soils resulting from hundreds/thousands of years of intensive, organic farming, grazing and forestry; a biodiversity that dies out when the soils get too fertile or specific management practices are discontinued. Here’s Michael Allaby writing in the Woodland Trust’s Book of British Woodlands:

The trees that are coppiced regenerate and go on regenerating for a very long time: far from injuring them, coppicing seems to extend their lifespans, so they become an almost perpetual source of wood. Chemically, the wood is composed of substances obtained from the air and soil, like any part of any plant, and cropping removes those substances. Livestock grazing among the trees returned some plant nutrient, but they, too, were removing vegetation by their grazing. The overall effect is a slow but steady export of plant nutrient and a decline in the fertility of the soil. This makes it sound as though the coppicing system is harmful, but harmful to what, or whom? Some plants are better than others at exploiting rich supplies of nutrient. Feed them well and they grow vigorously and, in relation to the plants around them, aggressively. On a fertile soil, therefore, the natural succession by which plants colonise an area will proceed fairly quickly to a situation in which a small number of aggressive species dominate the vegetation.

On a less fertile soil this cannot happen, because the aggressive species are denied the nutrients they need for more vigorous growth. This allows the less vigorous species, with more modest requirements, to thrive. The final result is a great diversity of plant species. The ecological rule-of-thumb is that the greater the fertility of the soil, the fewer plant species will establish themselves on it; and if you prefer a great diversity of species you need a poor soil. Over the years coppicing produces poor soils, and so coppiced woodlands tend to have a rich diversity of plant species. The greater the diversity of plant species, the greater will be the diversity of animals feeding on them, and since the arrival of herbivorous animals is followed by the arrival of predators and parasites of those animals, the entire ecosystem is enriched. (p.106)

So what direction do we pull in? Obviously the petro-fertiliser era is a blip which is going to end in short order, yet I’m less-than-convinced about the longterm viability of the systems that preceded it. Intentionally working to impoverish the soil? Surely sooner or later that will starve the ecosystem to death (although I’m not aware of any coppice rotations that have been stressed to breaking point in this way, even when supplying charcoal for industrial purposes). I think I agree that we have a responsibility to do right by the species we’ve in effect provided the selection pressure for over all these centuries of domesticating the landscape, whether that’s helping them adjust to the changing circumstances or, if that’s not possible, allowing them to die out with dignity. But I think the conservationists are wrong about greater fertility equating to lesser diversity. Maybe this would be the case in the short term, but after a while I expect it will simply be a different kind of selection pressure leading to an explosion of diversity in the more nutrient-hungry plants. How many different hybrid forms of Bramble, Nettle & Dandelion are there already in existence?

Fire-setting is another case in point. From what I’ve read it sounds like N American Indians burned grasses and forest understory purposefully to release the nutrients locked up in the standing dead plants, changing them into a form that was bio-available to the herbs, shrubs and annuals that would be growing on that spot by the next season. This was also an active selection for plants that provided edible, medicinal and other uses for the Indians (and, I assume, for the wildlife they shared the habitat with). It would be interesting to know the mix of woodland plants in Paleo/Mesolithic NW Europe – whether fire management caused this to differ in a similar way. A local conservationist has told me to look for Nettles and Brambles growing in places where our group had previously set fires in old coppice woodland, due to the nutrients released in the wood ash.

Over all it seems to be the case that humans are associated with enriched fertility in soils. That’s one line of archeological evidence for habitation by prehistoric man – at least in Europe you find seeds or pollen grains of Nettle, Plantain, Goosefoot and other associated ‘weeds’. We pitch camp somewhere for the season, eat, shit, do some burning and maybe a bit of gardening before moving on. My best nettle crops have come from places disturbed by people (the very best being where those people fenced off special areas in parkland for their dogs to come and do their business in the times before the ubiquitous small black plastic bags – mmm, dog poo nettles…) Anyway, the main problem with coppicing and other woodland management seems to be the same old civilisational problem of exporting resources far away from their point of origin. If people lived in the woods, building homes, cutting fuel, crafting necessary artifacts from the trees around them, and letting it all rot down on site, I think that could lead to a thriving & enriched ecosystem, supportive of a wide variety of plants and animals.

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11 Responses to “Fertility – Less or More?”

  1. leavergirl Says:

    Now you’ve thrown in another facet that confounds. Man, it’s getting so complicated. Low fertility good sometimes? Gosh darn.

    I’ve been wondering what would happen in arid eastern Colorado, if humans focused not on irrigation, but rather on rebuilding stable humus in the soil. Would that alter the prairie, bring in different plants, maybe more bushes and trees too? On the other hand, I am more inclined to think that it would bring the landscape back to what it was when the bison still roamed, and the vegetation was much more lush, though still grassland mostly. The stuff one sees on rehabilitated ranches in the southwest here, where the grasses just go nuts, and the willows and other bushes get more plentiful.

    Thanks for the jolt! :-)

  2. christine Says:

    About 15 years ago, there was a devastating ice storm that knocked down millions of trees in the forests of eastern Ontario and western Quebec. As they’ve rotted down they become ‘nursery trees’, and enriched the soil of the forest floor. Now I’m no botanist, but it doesn’t look to me as though the diversity has suffered any, in fact things like ginsengs and bloodroot seem to be making a comeback, and I can tell you many bird and animal species are flourishing again, now that the forests are ‘worthless’ for logging. The mycellium must be extraordinarily happy underneath all that rot. So I’m confused.
    If these forests had been ‘managed’, ie, the deadwood hauled out, how would that ensure more diversity than what’s been occurring naturally?
    Working to impoverish soil? The idea is unsettling to me.
    So is the idea of needing to return areas of land back to their ‘natural’ state – land evolves all the time. Live with beavers and you learn it can happen quite quickly. Wetlands are incredibly diverse, is their soil not considered fertile? I’ve had swamp muck spread on my garden, that was some good dirt! As the beavers move their dams and change the land again the wetland dries out to meadow then back to forest and on it goes.
    So I’m having trouble wrapping my head around this idea of fertility = less diversity. It may be politically incorrect to point this out, but the areas here that have been logged (although not clear cut) and *not replanted*, just left to their own devices, stumps and debris left to rot, are healthier than those that were managed according to human standards, ie planted with “desirable trees”. The managed areas end up a mess, susceptible to forest fires; the soil can’t hold moisture because it lacks the *fertility* that comes with gradual decay/growth cycles. Our national parks are a disgrace in that way…
    We humans are always in such a hurry to tinker :)
    Mind you, I may be showing my ignorance here. I’m not a scientist.

  3. Ian M Says:

    Usual apologies about delay. I suck etc…

    @LG – not good/bad, just different. As ever you get some winners and some losers. There are particular plants that thrive in the most extreme environments – hot, cold, arid, waterlogged, even areas polluted by industrial toxins – but that doesn’t argue for creating those conditions everywhere & all of the time. I’d guess over all, though, that greater fertility is better for the totality of life than less.

    That said, it seems like excess fertility introduced from outside the closed system can cause the balance to fluctuate wildly in a way that only benefits a select few (presumably until things settle on a new balance). Here’s Ken Thompson discussing the question of why rare plants seldom show up in peoples’ gardens:

    [I]f you look at the plants that are doing well in modern Britain, and compare them with those that are not, a clear pattern emerges. The winners are plants of fertile habitats (such as intensive pasture, arable fields and road verges), while the losers are plants of infertile habitats (heathland, chalk downs, ancient woodland). The massive use of artificial fertilizers and acid rain (a major source of nitrogen) are responsible for this pattern; plants that don’t like fertile soils are drowning in a sea of nitrogen and phosphorous, while plants that like fertile soils have never had it so good. Gardens tend to be highly fertile – most gardeners, after all, spend a lot of time and money to make them that way – so they are a poor habitat for most rare plants. Rare plants can grow in fertile soils, of course; it’s just that they are likely to be rapidly out-competed by faster-growing weeds. (No Nettles Required, p.146)

    @Christine – interesting. You’re talking about pine forests/plantations there, I presume? As far as I know it’s only the broadleaf species that respond to coppicing, so I’m guessing your ‘nursery trees’ sprang up from seed. Assertions about coppicing favouring biodiversity over here don’t tend to mention mycelium or the quality of the soil, but focus instead on the light availability for plants and animals on the forest floor & understory. For example, the Wikipedia page has this:

    Coppice management favours a range of wildlife, often of species adapted to open woodland. After cutting, the increased light allows existing woodland-floor vegetation such as bluebell, anemone and primrose to grow vigorously. Often brambles grow around the stools, encouraging insects, or various small mammals that can use the brambles as protection from larger predators. Woodpiles (if left in the coppice) encourage insects such as beetles to come into an area. The open area is then colonised by many animals such as Nightingale, European Nightjar and fritillary butterflies. As the coup grows, the canopy closes and it becomes unsuitable for these animals again—but in an actively managed coppice there is always another recently cut coup nearby, and the populations therefore move around, following the coppice management.

    So that (greater light availability) might be another factor encouraging the flora & fauna in your ice-storm forest.

    If these forests had been ‘managed’, ie, the deadwood hauled out, how would that ensure more diversity than what’s been occurring naturally?

    Well, it probably wouldn’t – even less so in a pine plantation. Chris Maser, formerly of the US Bureau of Land Management has said that ‘I know of no nation and no people that have maintained, on a sustainable basis, plantation-managed trees beyond three rotations’ (quoted in Jensen’s Strangely Like War, p.52). But coppiced or pollarded broadleaf woodland survives regular harvesting on a much longer timescale, perhaps indefinitely. Allaby’s point, I think, is that there has been time & space for wildlife to adapt to this management regime – indeed, to become dependent on its continuation – even if the exporting of materials leaves them with precious little to work with on the level of basic fertility. I’m still not saying that I like it, but…

    You should know by now that politically incorrect, ‘unscientific’ observations are more than welcome on this site ;) It doesn’t surprise me at all to hear that the ecology’s spontaneous attempts to heal itself do better than the hubristic tinkerings of people who are totally alienated from the daily realities of that world.


  4. christine Says:

    hi Ian – well now, it’s not that you suck, exactly. But it’s always nice when you reappear. I just assume that you have a life outside :)

    Anyhoo, no, the forests I’m talking about are not pine plantations, these are hardwood/softwood mixed forest. They were virgin til about 150 yrs ago, when it was discovered the old growth made great masts for the British Navy’s ships. Since then they’ve been logged over about every 50 years, for various purposes. Now that the pulp industry is dead it’s mainly firewood – everyone here has a wood burning stove. So yes, your bit above on coppicing applies, in a way. It’s not that coppicing happens, so much as selective logging, so we get the meadows, etc.

    Here and there, of course, we have those dreadful pine deserts but not near as many as in other, more developed areas. Our ‘Pontiac’, the federal riding, is about the size of Belgium, very rugged and mostly ignored by the rest of the country, a real blessing for nature.

    However, when the ‘reveneurs’ (gov’t) get involved and rules of forestry management are followed, that leads to heavier logging and then reforestation – tinkering.

    I’ll try to get some decent pics of forest up on my blog so you can have a look – it’s really gorgeous and wild, you’d love it. There’s a few there already but I have more waiting.

  5. christine Says:

    Oh, and Paul and I are heading for a place called Manitoulin Island for a few days, where there are amazing examples of forest management by the natives, still thriving. It’s going to be great to see, there’s one spot that’s mostly meadow, but dotted with old oaks and juniper. Interesting combination, isn’t it? Hope we can find it again, it’s a big island…

  6. Ian M Says:

    Hey Christine,

    Not exactly a ‘life’ per se. More like a ‘job’ :( Only 3-4 days per week at the moment but it’s a big energy drain that makes it difficult to keep up with the multiple activities (including blogging) I got on with before. Garden maintenance + a 40-45min cycle commute in case you were interested to know…

    Anyway, a couple more topical links:

    Another example of too much fertility I should’ve mentioned above, ‘Fertilization’ in waterways and out to sea through nitrate runoff from farms:

    Rainfall and irrigation water inevitably washes the nitrogen from fields to creeks and streams, which flows into rivers, which floods into the ocean. This explains why the Mississippi River, which drains the nation’s Corn Belt, is an environmental catastrophe. The nitrogen fertilizes artificially large blooms of algae that in growing suck all the oxygen from the water, a condition biologists call anoxia, which means “oxygen-depleted.” Here there’s no need to calculate long-term effects, because life in such places has no long term: everything dies immediately. The Mississippi River’s heavily fertilized effluvia has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. (from Richard Manning’s classic essay, ‘The Oil We Eat‘)

    But this doesn’t mean actively working to keep the oceans nutrient-poor. Here’s an example of the wonderfully intricate interspecies relationships that can evolve through the movement of nutrients from one zone to another:

    This past fall, McCauley, a graduate student, and DeSalles, an undergraduate, were in remote Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific tracking manta rays’ movements for a predator-prey interaction study.

    Swimming with the rays and charting their movements with acoustic tags, McCauley and DeSalles noticed the graceful creatures kept returning to certain islands’ coastlines. Meanwhile, graduate student Hillary Young was studying palm tree proliferation’s effects on bird communities and native habitats.

    Palmyra is a unique spot on Earth where scientists can compare largely intact ecosystems within shouting distance of recently disturbed habitats. A riot of life — huge grey reef sharks, rays, snapper and barracuda — plies the clear waters while seabirds flock from thousands of miles away to roost in the verdant forests of this tropical idyll.

    Over meals and sunset chats at the small research station, McCauley, DeSalles, Young and other scientists discussed their work and traded theories about their observations. “As the frequencies of these different conversations mixed together, the picture of what was actually happening out there took form in front of us,” McCauley said.

    Through analysis of nitrogen isotopes, animal tracking and field surveys, the researchers showed that replacing native trees with non-native palms led to about five times fewer roosting seabirds (they seemed to dislike palms’ simple and easily wind-swayed canopies), which led to fewer bird droppings to fertilize the soil below, fewer nutrients washing into surrounding waters, smaller and fewer plankton in the water and fewer hungry manta rays cruising the coastline. (Science Daily: ‘Intricate, Often Invisible Land-Sea Ecological Chains of Life Threatened With Extinction Around the World‘)

    Finally, you may have to junk some of the above comments on coppicing. Searching around Mark Fisher’s site, ‘Self-Willed Land‘ (an excellent source for debunking the claims of those in what he terms the ‘conservation industry’) I came across this article which references a piece from 1995 published by two Oxford-based ecologists, Clive Hambler and Martin Speight: ‘Biodiversity Conservation in Britain: Science Replacing Tradition‘. I found it an incredibly useful and important read, in spite of strong disagreements with several assertions. More on that later when I have the time, but basically my interest in foraging has biased my attention towards plantlife, especially that which provides a direct practical use for human beings. So the effect of coppicing in making more sunlight available for herbs and shrubs under the forest canopy sounds great to me. But it turns out that in woodland the real action lies at the smaller end of the scale:

    The fundamental reason for a conflict between invertebrate and plant conservation is that most invertebrates, unlike plants and butterflies, do not exploit the sun’s energy directly – indeed, it is hazardous to them. Further, invertebrates often live in and on dead plant material. Dead wood and dead grass is of little interest to flowering plant conservationists, except in so much as it may increase soil fertility and so reduce the floristic diversity. Botanists have long dominated conservation management in Britain, yet few appear to realise that some 70% of the energy flow through a terrestrial ecosystem is through the decomposer community, not the herbivores [my emph.]. Thus, as the pretty plants and their specialist herbivores decline during succession, less loved invertebrates (and many vertebrates), start to thrive, many feeding on abundant decomposer organisms, often in the soil.

    If your focus is on biodiversity and preventing species loss, then traditional management doesn’t seem to be the way to go, as most of the threatened species are the specialists that thrive in the relatively undisturbed interiors of climax woodland – the ‘endpoint’ ecology for most of Northern Europe.

    By contrast, coppicing involves a rotation which is often too rapid and drastic for woodland species, including many shade- or moisture-loving organisms such as lichens, bryopyhtes, and ferns (Rose 1976). There are even cases where neglect can benefit the flowering plants, whilst coppicing harms them. In Suffolk one of the county’s most eminent botanists caused furore by suggesting that plants had suffered under re-instatement of a coppice regime (Simpson, 1989) – partly because of the smothering of the ground by tall herbs and scrub on the now nutrient-rich soil.

    Generally, ‘neglected’ coppice is improving gradually as a habitat, and many coppices neglected for decades or centuries are very rich in wildlife and rarities (Duffey 1973, Harding & Rose 1986, Sterling & Hambler 1988, Sterling 1988, but see Key 1990). This improvement could be speeded up by management such as re-introductions and importation of dead wood. Neglected coppice woodlands also store more carbon than active ones (Hambler 1990).


    High diversity of habitat is clearly an undesirable general goal: the costs and benefits depend on the scale of the habitats. A diverse park or garden may have more landscape or educational appeal than a dense, dark oak or spruce monoculture, and more species of vascular plants – but more specialist, vulnerable, and globally rare species could inhabit the woodland. Mud and sea lochs may not be diverse, but are important habitats.

    Coppicing, which turns woodland into glorified scrub, is again a useful example. It is often thought to increase habitat diversity since the rotational cutting of patches of the coppice woodland gives an impression of variety. However, this may be an artefact of the way people see habitats: fractal geometry shows that architectural diversity is scale-dependent, and to many organisms there may be more habitat diversity in a mature woodland although it may seem homogeneous to an animal as large as a human. The smaller the organism, the greater the rate of loss of habitat as felling occurs. A large late-successional habitat, such as a forest with natural treefall gaps, will often have a high habitat diversity – with both very high species richness and quality.

    To saproxylic organisms, species requiring large or complex structures, or abundant foliage, coppicing does not increase diversity. Sterling and Hambler (1988), and Waring (1988) have found coppicing damaging to woodland spiders and moths. It may benefit butterflies like the Pearl-bordered and Heath Fritillaries, Boloria euphrosyne and Mellicta athalia . However, such butterflies have alternative habitats on woodland edges, rides, and even on grasslands and heathlands respectively (Thomas 1986). Is it ethical to ‘diversify’ or create habitat for them at the expense of the woodland species such as the epiphytic ‘lower’ plants – the true natives of much of our landscape, with nowhere else to go except extinction? Woodland nature reserves are supposedly secure as woodland habitats – and large ones are the best places to aim for true forest conservation. Common habitats should not be created from rare ones to increase diversity.

    A further problem with habitat diversity is that it may be created at the expense of large, homogeneous blocks of habitat, and therefore more edges are created, between small habitat fragments. In some circumstances, edges are beneficial, but a rapidly increasing scientific literature suggests organisms of the edge and matrix around a habitat can be inimical to those of the interior.

    Woodland specialists and edge-effects.Woodland, once the dominant habitat of Britain, now covers only 10% of the land. If we want to conserve the ecological processes of forests, woodland specialists should be given priority over species which have a greater range of potential habitats, and which are more tolerant of stressful, open environments. Woodland interiors are coming to be seen as very different from their edges (Soulé 1986; Laurance & Yansen 1991). Edge biology has enormous implications for the shape of woodlands, and the positions of clearings such as rides and roads within them.

    Studies of British woodlands with advanced environmentally benign ‘knockdown’ sampling methods have shown that forest specialist invertebrates may suffer in a way similar to the forest specialist birds of the Americas when their habitats are fragmented (Ozanne 1991). Specialists decline rapidly near the woodland edge, and are rare on isolated trees. These results are supported by work on the ground faunas of deciduous woods near York (Usher et al in prep.). We have found detrimental edge-effects penetrate at least 25m into an Oxfordshire conifer woodland (Ozanne et al in press) and further studies will clarify whether this is a general pattern of relevance to minimum forest sizes and corridor widths.

    Britain has presumably lost most woodland specialist mammals and birds which inhabited its great forests before they were destroyed: few vertebrates thrive on short grass, and the species that live in forest gaps generally are mobile and have alternative habitats. Many birds require tree holes and dead wood, and there is a paucity in certain elements of our avifauna (such as woodpeckers) in comparison with larger and more natural woods in Europe. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure what we have lost. Are we still losing specialist invertebrates? Examination of the Red Data Books shows that we are. (Box 3, also Kirby & Drake 1993).

    Hmm, some interesting implications in there for permaculture and forest gardening, with their stress on maximising edge and availability of sunlight. Perhaps the thing to take away from this is the importance of ‘neglect’ and not having a ‘working countryside’ straining everywhere to fulfill human desires. Maybe coppicing has a role on woodland edges as somewhere to provide essential building or tool-making materials. It definitely shouldn’t dominate all areas of woodland though, whose management we should leave to those who need freedom from our heaviest disturbances in order to survive.

  7. christine Says:

    Hi Ian – ah, my husband was doing the same sort of work when we first met. Exhausting. And not terribly rewarding all the time, either. My sympathies.
    Anyway, many thanks for all the (as usual) v. interesting reading. I enjoy Mark Fisher’s site. Maybe one day “conservation” will begin with the smallest micro-organisms and work up.
    I’m reminded of the importance of salmon to forests in British Columbia. As the Grizzly bears catch the salmon and leave partial carcasses to rot, these enrich the soil – it turns out low salmon runs are the cause of degradation of otherwise protected old growth forests. Try telling that to the foreign trawlers in international waters off the coast, though, and see if they care.
    I have long had my doubts about certain aspects of permaculture. As far as a gardening method on the smallish scale, I love it. But when it comes to managing larger landscapes the way they do, well, it always seems very human-centered. Sepp Holzer is amazing yet I can see why he makes the locals squirm, too.
    A piece of land has just come up for sale near us, dirt cheap, too, at $175,000 – it’s 156 acres. One side of a small mountain and a bit of marshy lake at the bottom fed by a lovely clean stream. Because the terrain is too difficult to log, it is mostly pristine. There’s an old farmhouse that would be very easy to take back off grid and maybe 5 acres of arable land.
    I wish I could buy it and just. leave. it. be. One could learn so much.

  8. Ian M Says:

    No, not hugely rewarding for the moment. Probably not a good idea for someone who likes wild plants to get a job where he spends a large amount of time killing them because ‘they’re weeds’. On the other hand it’s good for overall fitness levels and working in the fresh air etc. When not choking on strimmer fumes, that is…

    Yeah, I’d heard some things about the salmon connection. Pretty amazing long distance relationships there!

    Not familiar with Sepp Holzer. What’s he up to?

    Hope that land goes to a sane person. A bit outside my price range at the moment!


  9. Where I’ve been « Frequently Found Growing On Disturbed Ground Says:

    [...] site. Basically, that Hambler & Speight article I linked to under the ‘recent’ post about soil fertility had me questioning and ultimately rejecting a lot of the standard lines you [...]

  10. Londa Fiser Says:

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  11. Ian M Says:

    Pretty good NatGeo article on Nitrogen, over-fertilisation and runaway agricultural output: ‘The Curse of Fertilizer‘ touching on many of the above points and filling out some detail (h/t Vanessa). I thought this was particularly well put:

    almost half of the nitrogen found in our bodies’ muscle and organ tissue started out in a fertilizer factory

    Although the author made the usual howler of putting the cart of human population before the horse of agricultural surplus:

    As [China's] population grew by an astounding 300 million people between 1970 and 1990, China’s traditional agriculture struggled to keep up.

    Well, okay, maybe the old peasant traditions didn’t play so much of a role in it but those additional 300 million people came into the world as a direct result of the higher yields made possible by nitrogen fertilisers and the new plant varieties that were bred specifically to take advantage of them. If anything it was the human population which ‘struggled to keep up’ with the massive expansion of food availability and an artificially increased carrying capacity of the land. More food = more people.

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