Ancient manuring practices pollute arable soils at the St Kilda World Heritage Site, Scottish North Atlantic

Andrew A. Meharg, Clare Deacon, Kevin J. Edwards, Margaret Donaldson, Donald A. Davidson, Christian Spring, Charles M. Scrimgeour, Jorg Feldmann, A. Rabb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)


The impact of ancient fertilization practices on the biogeochemistry of arable soils on the remote Scottish island of Hirta, St Kilda was investigated. The island was relatively unusual in that the inhabitants exploited seabird colonies for food, enabling high population densities to be sustained on a limited, and naturally poor, soil resource. A few other Scottish islands, the Faeroes and some Icelandic Islands, had similar cultural dependence on seabirds. Fertilization with human and animal waste streams (mainly peat ash and bird carcases) on Hirta over millennia has led to over-deepened, nutrient-rich soils (plaggen). This project set out to examine if this high rate of fertilization had adversely impacted the soil, and if so, to determine which waste streams were responsible. Arable soils were considerably elevated in Pb and Zn compared to non-arable soils. Using Pb isotope signatures and analysis of the waste streams, it was determined that this pollution came from peat and turf ash (Pb and Zn) and from bird carcases (Zn). This was also confirmed by C-13 and N-15 analysis of the profiles which showed that soil organic matter was highly enriched in marine-derived C and N compared to non-arable soils. The pollution of such a remote island may be typical of other 'bird culture' islands, and peat ash contamination of marginal arable soils at high latitudes may be widespread in terms of geographical area, but less intense at specific locations due to lower population densities than on Hirta. (c) 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1818-1828
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2006


  • As
  • Cu
  • Ph
  • Zn
  • peat ash
  • plaggen soils
  • seabirds
  • LEAD
  • WEST
  • AD


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