Soil is the thin upper layer of our Earth's crust, composed of mineral particles derived from underlying geological materials, organic matter, water, air and organisms.
English soils vary from a few centimetres to a metre or more in depth. Although they are young in a world context, they represent about 10,000 years of ecological processes and human modification.
Consequently soil is regarded as a non-renewable resource because it cannot be re-created except within the context of geological timescales.
England's soils are diverse, reflecting the wide range of underlying rock types and drainage, and are variable in their characteristics. Soil types can change over short distances because of complex interactions between underlying geology, landform, past and existing land use and climate.
Soil in England is classified into 10 major groups, with nearly 700 soil types grouped into around 300 associations that typically reflect the varied geology of the parent rock. These have been further simplified into 27 classifications of what are known as 'Soilscapes', which group soils according to similar basic properties and link this to information on habitats, fertility and land use.
Soil types are also a major component of the Agricultural Land Classification system. This is a system for defining the agricultural potential of land, which is used in land use planning. You can find out more in Agricultural Land Classification: protecting the best and most versatile agricultural land.
Soil is a medium in which plants grow and a habitat for animals and other micro-organisms. Fertile soil is vital for the production of food, timber and fibre, which are all essential for human existence and providing economic prosperity.
There are many pressures on our soils, especially erosion, compaction and organic matter decline, and the impacts of development (sealing with impermeable materials such as concrete or tarmac), pollution and loss of biodiversity.
Little statutory protection exists specifically for England's soil, although they are indirectly protected by other legislation such as that covering the prevention of pollution and contamination, and for land use planning.