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Mud pies for grown ups!

Friday 10 August, 2018, by Emily Coates

This spring, I was tasked with some soil sampling to support a farmer’s agri-environment scheme. As support officer for the Farm Conservation team, this is a straightforward but enjoyable task that allows me to practise the skills I need to progress in my job – talking to farmers, map reading, species and habitat identification, and taking photos in the sunshine!

The morning I set off I was armed with stewardship maps, an OS map, a bucket, a soil corer, and a stirring stick. I met the farmer in Sleddale to confirm which fields needed testing and to ask his advice on the best way of accessing each. 
Fields have a habit of looking very flat and square on a map, but in reality are often larger, steeper and much less regular.

New Laithe Barn's tall wall would certainly provide welcome shelter for humans and animals in less fair conditions
New Laithe Barn’s tall wall would certainly provide welcome shelter for humans and animals in less fair conditions

The farmer helpfully pointed out that I couldn’t miss the route as I would be walking past New Laithe Barn which has an exceptionally tall wall, built to shelter horses from the wind. He wasn’t wrong. But on that bright May day, the wind was dormant and I didn’t need its shelter.
Further up the hill I veered off the footpath to identify the first few fields that needed sampling. One of the best parts of my job is I get to visit places that few people see; I view very well known dales from lesser known angles.
Soil sampling involves walking across a field in a ‘W’ shape, taking 10–20 soil cores as you go. When I started zigzagging across the pastures, I unwittingly but inevitably disturbed the local residents – late May is breeding season for wading birds.

The lapwing's alternative name, peewit, mimics its distinctive call
The lapwing’s alternative name, peewit, mimics its distinctive call

In no time, pairs of lapwings were alarm-calling above my head to deter me, alert their neighbours and protect their nests. I tried to track their flight paths to locate their nests and avoid disturbing them as much as possible.
I counted at least four pairs of lapwings and a pair of curlews. It would be easy to think this is nothing special as both are common within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. But, nationally, numbers have fallen steadily since the 1940s. Seeing these birds is a real privilege.

My trusty bucket and soil corer
My trusty bucket and soil corer

After I gathered soil cores from each field I broke them up, pulled out any leaves, roots and unlucky worms, and stirred to create a representative sample of the whole field.
This is my favourite bit. I was the kind of child who collected sticks and stones wherever I went, and now I get paid to make a mud pie!
I bagged the soil, labelling it clearly with the field number. Correct labelling is super-duper important! It is quite difficult to identify one bag of soil from another.

A sure sign that spring has arrived, the cuckoo flower blooms from April
A sure sign that spring has arrived, the cuckooflower blooms from April

Throughout the day, I visited 14 fields. I got to the head of the dale and saw the limestone pavement hiding from the untempered wind under a thin layer of soil. When the soil is so shallow I feel careless stealing this precious resource and am mindful not to take more than I need.

I took samples from two large pastures in the middle of the dale. The uncharacteristically dry conditions made it difficult to extract any soil, but the cuckooflowers were out and kept me cheery.
Using a ford to reach four rush pastures, I hopped across the valley. 
When I began my zigzagging, I was greeted by a handsome grey horse. He fussed and huffed and clearly wanted me to know he was there. I have grown up with horses; he looked both curious and mildly annoyed that I was on his turf.

My curious friend
My curious friend

Laying my equipment down and calming my breathing, I expected him to come and investigate my bucket for food. After a few quiet moments he decided I was of no interest and trotted off. Charming!
Finally, I headed back to the office to box up the samples for testing. From permanent pasture we hope to see a pH of around 6 and low nitrogen indicators. These would indicate the sensitive management that supports the habitats and species I have the fortune to explore during my working day.

To find out more about the work of the Farm Conservation team and how they can help you, visit our website at

Picture of Emily Coates

Emily Coates

Emily is Land Management Facilitator for the North Pennines AONB Partnership.


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