STARS in the field

“In this guest blog post, PhD researchers Emily Dowdeswell and Dan Evans, on behalf of the STARS (Soils Training and Research Studentships) Centre for Doctoral Training review an exciting week in the field. Funded by NERC and BBSRC, STARS is made up of a consortium of 8 organizations, comprising of 4 universities and 4 research institutes from around England, Scotland and Wales which are collaborating to offer training to PhD students within soil science”

The second cohort of STARS students recently gathered together for training in soil themes, fieldwork and laboratory techniques. The first half of the course, taking place at Lancaster University, saw myself and fellow STARS students exploring the cross-cutting nature of soils and the opportunities and enjoyment active outreach to the public and to policymakers can bring.

Our many thanks go to Emma Sayer, who delivered a talk on ‘Bridging Gaps in Ecosystem Ecology and Science Communication’, Rebecca Willis who informed us about ‘Talking to Government’, Phil Haygarth who spoke about ‘Soil Water and Nutrient Interactions’ and Alona Armstrong who concluded the afternoon with a talk on ‘Energy and Soil’.

Another day of the training was delivered by the British Society of Soil Science, BSSS, with excellent facilitators Willie Towers and Alex Cooke. With our facilitators to guide us the STARS cohort were faced with three tasks.

The STARS students being put through their paces digigng some soil pits under the watchful eye of Willie Towers.

The first task was to discuss the factors of soil formation. Those familiar with ‘ClORPT’ may list these factors with ease as Climate, Organisms, Relief, Parent Material and Time. However, our task was not simple; the challenge was to dig deeper and unearth the connections between these factors, and the aspects of the soil they influence.

The second task was to explore what sensory knowledge we can glean from soil. We were taught how our senses, touch, sight and smell, could help identify soil characteristics and make inferences about the soil. A favourite skill of a soil scientist is to estimate the soil texture. The colour and smell can tell us much about the organic matter content of the soil and the occurrence of gleying.

The third and final task was to create soil pits at the Myerscough College (with their kind agreement of course) and apply the techniques we had learned that morning to discuss the soil horizons and debate what we could infer about the site’s depositional history. After an afternoon’s worth of hard digging the groups each presented a soil pit around a metre deep and displayed the soil horizons. However, the groups discovered more than just a few earthworms, as an oddity accompanied each pit, such as a tree stump, drainage pipe and plastic lining. All oddities had been buried, hinting at the complex depositional history of the site, to which we could only guess.

The authors and fellow colleagues involved in a selfie with their well-dug soil pit!

This pilgrimage through classic Pedology continued on Wednesday, as the STARS contingent headed to one of the consortium’s partnering institutions: Bangor Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, expertly managed by Professor Davey Jones and Professor David Chadwick. If the first section of the course had trained us to think about soil at the ‘pit’ scale, the second considered soil as greatly variable over space and time. By studying and sampling the soil at sites down a catena, the aim was to account for the ways by which soils change physically, chemically and biologically and to translate these changes to feed a broader discussion about soil ecosystem services.

Ask anyone to define Catena and you may receive a very mixed response. Stemming from the Latin for chain, a Catena is a form of Catholic prayer, a genus of the Tachinidae fly family, and an online media company in Malta. But to dirt doctors around the world, the word Catena refers to a soil sequence often established on sloping topography. Bangor University has the advantage of owning most of the land on one particular catena sequence and it was that hillslope where we set to work.

In teams, some soil was impaled by probes and some was scooped into plastic bags and kidnapped. For those whose love of Soil Science was still not completely satisfied, large clods were given a very intense sniff. As highlighted in the first half of the course, for those with the deceptive nose, soil aromas can inform us about the overall health of the earth underneath our feet. Other team members whiled away their afternoon massaging the soils between their fingers to ascertain soil texture whilst others, equipped with spades and the zest for digging holes, began to unearth the soil profile and its associated horizons. All of these activities were important in comprehensively documenting the state of the soil at each site down the catena and would eventually allow us to assess the gradients of soil quality indicators from the mountain to the coast.

The STARS contingent had some gloruious weather over the course of the week. Here they are walking through fields in Bangor.

The soil that had been abducted into small, plastic sample bags did not get away lightly. Some was burnt so we could ascertain the organic matter content. Some was measured for pH and electrical conductivity. Some was showered by acid to account for the presence of carbonates. Some was screened for Phosphate, Nitrate and Ammonium. An afternoon in the laboratory at Henfaes was equally as important and informative as the day spent out ‘in the field’.

With both field and laboratory analyses complete, the data were compiled, processed and discussed. One of the fascinating discoveries was the great diversity that existed between groups on the matter of soil ecosystem services. In the eyes of one group, some soils played a specific spiritual role in the landscape whilst another group labelled them as spiritually dormant, scoring them very low in terms of their cultural services. This led to a salient point: ecosystem services, and the soil’s contribution to them, are subjective.

What was more unanimously agreed upon, however, was the success of the course and our gratitude to all of those who ensured its smooth delivery. For the final time this year, the second cohort of STARS had shone a light on the fascinating, and at times mysterious depths of the dirt that exists below us. We parted ways, each taking with us a wider understanding of the soil and, as the course prescribed, an important foundation in Soil Science: the study of a resource that is, after all, the foundation of life on Earth.

Authors: Emily Dowdeswell and Dan Evans, on behalf of STARS

Twitter: @EDowdswell and @DanEvansol

For more information about the week, head to the STARS website or read more of Dan’s reflections on

Cover Photo: Some of the STARS cohort involved in a group photo over looking some of the beautiful scenery of Snowdonia