After a long hiatus, I have returned to Ground to Sky! I have been very busy, dealing with finalising two research publications and spending every lunchtime in the university music practice rooms but now I am pleased to return to this blog. In this article I will provide a brief discussion of my latest research paper to be published. The (open access) paper is available online here.

The work that I will describe took place during my PhD and was located at West Sedgemoor in the (currently terribly flooded) Somerset Levels and Moors. This land is very low lying, and floods every winter as it is part of the floodplain of the River Parrett. This seasonal cycle creates a unique habitat for wetland birds, and the site is managed by the RSPB for their conservation. West Sedgemoor is a system of small fields that are separated by a series of interconnected drainage ditches. These are managed by the RSPB to ensure that the conditions are always good for wetland birds. Part of the management of West Sedgemoor involves short term grazing during the autumn months by young beef cattle. As part of my study into the greenhouse gas emissions from these seasonally waterlogged peatlands, I was interested to see how the cattle’s urine stimulated production of greenhouse gases inside the soil and their emission as the field went from dry to flooded.

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West Sedgemoor

To measure the greenhouse gas emissions (I was looking at carbon dioxide, CO2, methane, CH4 and nitrous oxide, N2O), I used ‘flux chambers’. These are boxes that are dug into the soil. A lid is put on the box and you wait a while for the gas to accumulate inside the box and take samples during this time. You can then calculate the emission of the gas from the rate of change of the gas inside the box. To measure greenhouse gases in the soil, I used ‘soil atmosphere collectors’. These are silicone tubes that are porous. Air from in the soil moves into these collectors as if they were a large soil pore and you can then take samples from the air inside through a cap accessible from the surface. Dipwells were used to measure the depth of the water-table from the surface.

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Equipment in the field.

Before we could start sampling, we needed some cattle urine. Although cattle were to be loose in the field at the time of sampling, we did not want them getting close to the equipment and actually we didn’t want them to pee near it either! For a controlled experiment, we needed to be sure that every plot (with box, soil atmosphere collector and dipwell) received the same amount of urine. This would be impossible letting the cows loose in the area, so we used urine from cows at the University of Reading farms and fenced the equipment away from the cows in the field. There were ten plots, five to be treated with the urine and five to act as controls and be treated only with water. This allowed us to be sure that it was the urine that caused any changes in the soil and not just the act of the soil getting wet. The experiment ran between September and November in 2010.

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This graph shows the effect of cattle urine and water application on CO2 emissions. There was a large emission of CO2 from the urine treated plots on the day that the cattle urine was applied. This is due to ‘hydrolysis’ of the urea in the urine when it impacts the soil. Bacteria make an enzyme called ‘urease’ which is found very commonly in soils and is catalyses the hydrolysis process. Despite this initial CO2 release, there was not much increase in CO2 due to the urine addition over the full period and there was no significant difference at all in CO2 in the soil atmosphere between urine treated and water treated plots.

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Here we look at the methane in the cattle urine plots and can see there was a substantial reduction in the methane a few days after applying urine. We are not sure what caused this; it is a very unusual finding. It happened in 3 of the 5 urine treated plots and none of the control plots. Overall, however, adding cattle urine increased the amount of methane that came out of the soil during the experiment. As you can see, the control plots remained sinks of methane – that is, soil bacteria were taking methane from the atmosphere and using it to metabolise. This is called methane oxidation. In the plots treated with urine, this activity was prevented as a result of the urine contents. This supports other studies for this is a known effect of adding urea to soils. Under the soil surface there was also evidence of increased methane in the urine treated soil relative to the controls.

n2oThe most profound effect of adding cattle urine to the peat soil was shown for nitrous oxide, N2O. Here we see that throughout the experiment, the urine caused large increase in N2O compared to the control. This peaked 12 days after application, following rainfall. This shows how important soil moisture and water-table can be in determining what happens to added nutrients in soil. Under the soil surface, the differences between control and urine treated plots were even more interesting.

n2oWhen you look at the above figure, notice the numbers on the y axis. On day 2 after the urine was applied, you could already see the difference in production of N2O in the urine treated soils. By the twelth day, the production in the control soils was dwarfed entirely, with production at 20cm depth dominating. By Day 56, the field was entirely flooded and N2O concentrations were very high. We believe that the reason why this happened so strongly at 20cm was due to the fact that the peat soil was covered by a layer of clay. Clay soils, when saturated, are not very good at letting air pass through them and therefore N2O that was produced at levels lower than 20cm, will also get trapped here.

For more information on this experiment, please see the full paper. This is only a short summary of all of the results that were presented there. But what does this mean for managing greenhouse gases in peat soils? Well, N2O and CH4 emissions will get worse after cattle have been on the field and they will get especially worse if the field then floods. This implies that if you are concerned about the greenhouse gas balance of the field, grazing cattle earlier rather than later is likely to reduce the emissions after the field floods. However, there are far more things to balance than just the greenhouse gas emissions; for example, managing the feed supply for the cattle, managing the field grass level and, in the case of RSPB West Sedgemoor, managing the land for wetland birds. Balancing all of these demands and best practice is never an easy task and will require a carefully considered compromise.

I will write again at Ground to Sky shortly, and will attempt to reduce the long time span between blog entries. Next time, I will write about using trace gases to help us to understand where greenhouse gas emissions come from, in particular the use of carbon monoxide as a tracer for fossil-fuel carbon dioxide in cities.

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