The Rhyme of the Ancient Pedologist (except it’s not in rhyme)

For the next installment in our ‘Your Career in Soil Or Plant Sciences’ segment, retired soils expert John Hollis reflects on his life as a pedologist.

This tale really gets going in 1966 when I opted to take a degree in Soil Science at Newcastle on Tyne University. Like a lot of people in their later school years I had no real idea what I wanted to do in life and, in my last school year, was rather aimlessly looking at University courses. My father, who knew someone there, suggested a trip to Nottingham University’s Sutton Bonnington College, part of its School of Agriculture. There I was introduced to the subject of Soil Science and thought ‘well that sounds different!’ So, like most of the contributors to this blog, my entry into soil science was a mixture of serendipity and chance. In the end I didn’t go to Nottingham (too near to my home) and instead went to Newcastle on Tyne which, at the time was one of about 6 Universities offering a straight soil science degree.

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Studying hard at University, 1968, second from left

The course was based in the Faculty of Agriculture and, as I recall (memory plays tricks on you when you get older), included modules (they weren’t called that then) in general agriculture, physical & organic chemistry (two years!), geology, mineralogy, statistics, plant science, soil chemistry, soil physics and pedology. Looking back, I realize what a fantastic grounding in soil science this was and how different it is to today’s situation when soil science is usually taken as a minor module within other Environmentally or Agriculturally based degrees. Unfortunately, I didn’t take full advantage of this privileged situation, not working hard enough over the three years and, like Matt Aitkenhead, a previous blogger, ending up with a classic ‘Desmond’ – but hey, this was the late sixties, a fantastic time to be young and away from home for the first time. I was enjoying myself too much! When I graduated in 1969, Peter Askew, my tutor and a great lecturer in pedology, suggested that, having showed more aptitude for this than most other topics, I should apply for a job at the Soil Survey of England & Wales (Scotland was already ‘Independent’ in the soils world at this stage!). I was lucky enough to be recruited as an Assistant Scientific Officer based at the West Midlands Regional Office at ‘Woodthorne’ in Wolverhampton under the leadership of Mike Hodgson.

The organization was expanding at the time having started a long term programme of mapping soil types at the 1:25,000 scale within selected 100 km2 areas of land. The organization was part of the Agricultural Research Council and the survey’s brief was clearly focussed on agricultural applications. I spent the next 13 years surveying areas throughout the West Midlands and Welsh borderlands, learning, with the use of spade and auger, to systematically recognize, describe, classify and differentiate between soil types and their associated characteristics. After a year of training in the field, we were let loose to organize, manage and carry out our own 100 km2 surveys within the context of the overall mapping programme, largely on our own but with regular ‘monitoring from more senior staff. The whole process took about 1 -2 years per 100 km2 from start to finish. I can honestly say (and many of my SSEW colleagues agree) that these were some of the most enjoyable years of my life. It also brought home to me the importance of the pedological paradigm of ‘CLORPT’ (local soil characteristics are the result of the interaction between CLimate, Organisms and Relief, acting on Parent materials over Time). Once you have worked out how these factors interact locally, you can begin to predict how soil characteristics vary within the landscape, supported of course by systematic ‘ground truthing’. Towards the end of this period, because of the length of time taken by detailed 1:25,000 scale soil mapping, and with the encouragement of the Ministry of Agriculture, the emphasis changed and a National 1:250,000 scale mapping programme was instituted to produce a composite map showing the distribution of the main soil landscapes across the two countries. The programme lasted about 4 years and resulted in the 1984 publication of the 1:250,000 scale Regional Map sheets of England and Wales each with their descriptive ‘Bulletins’, still available today.

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SSEW 1982. Squeezed at the back again

During the later stages these mapping programmes, having been encouraged to apply for the post of Head of Soil Classification & Correlation which was becoming vacant on the retirement of Brian Avery, I was lucky (or unlucky?) enough to be appointed to the job and moved to SSEW Headquarters at Rothamsted Experimental Station. The next few years gave me an unprecedented opportunity to become familiar with the astonishingly wide range of soil characteristics that are present in our relatively small island. I was also able to extend my experience to Europe through work on what is now the Soil Geographic Database of Europe, held at the Joint Research Centre in Italy (look it up if you don’t already know of it) and become involved in an IUSS initiative to develop an agreed International Soil Classification system that eventually has become the IUSS / FAO World Reference Base (WRB).

Then, in late 1986 to 1987, the world changed when the Government of the day decided that a national soil organization like SSEW was no longer needed and ‘money could be saved’. Nobody was really interested in soil anyway. The organization mounted a short lobbying campaign to refute this idea and our regional network of Offices allowed us to contact and talk to a wide range of local MPs. Rather too late, it brought home the importance of forging and maintaining such links rather than just focussing on the ‘interesting science’. In the end, I think we partially won the argument about the importance of soil resources but the main response was ‘if you believe that soil resources are so important, go ahead and prove it by selling your expertise and information’. So this is what we attempted to do, although the drastic cuts in funding meant that about half the SSEW staff were made redundant.

Following our re-location to the Silsoe Campus of Cranfield University, continuing reductions over a period of a few years made the transition difficult and we had to adapt quickly to the need for securing extra funding from sectors other than Agriculture (the ability to adapt quickly to changing situations seems to be another common theme in these blogs). Although a rapid learning curve, it soon became apparent that a firm grounding in soil science coupled with our information on the spatial variability of soil types could be applied to a range of environmental and engineering, as well as agricultural applications. Most of my remaining career has been devoted to work on such applications, including: Hydrology and flood management planning (Hydrology of Soil Types – HOST); Risk management in the Insurance & Water sectors (susceptibility of different soils to ground heave and corrosivity of underground metal pipes); Environmental protection of water resources at the National & European levels (susceptibility of different soils to leaching of agrochemicals and the identification of relevant agro-environmental scenarios for predicting likely pesticide concentrations in local surface and groundwater bodies resulting from agricultural use). The latter work led me down a curious sideline modelling the run-off of pesticides used on ‘Hard Surfaces’ in Urban, and Domestic areas, Major Roads and Railway tracks – quite a change for a soil scientist but you never know where your research will take you and the message is to seize any chance you get!

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Tanzania, 1995

I finally left Cranfield University in 2006 and have since worked, on and off, as an independent consultant in Soil & Water Resources & the Environmental Fate of Agrochemicals. Now I’m effectively retired with very little consultancy work but a very enjoyable input to some of the training courses run under the BSSS ‘Working with Soils’ initiative.

There are a few messages that I think are relevant from my experiences:

The first thing that strikes me is how much things have changed since I started out. My early working career, although a great experience that stood me in good stead for the future, was at a time when soil science was thought of very specifically in agricultural terms. These days, there is an appreciation that the full gamut of functions supported by soil needs to be addressed. Today’s soil scientists are in a good position to exploit this by applying their knowledge to a wide range of applications. It is significant that all my colleagues (and friends) who were made redundant when the axe fell on SSEW were able to remain working in the sector, most as self employed consultants in the areas of Environmental Impact Assessment and Agricultural Land Use assessment. Many are still working today, well after their pensionable age (sorry guys!) and some have never been busier. The demand for experienced soil scientists is growing, both in the research and applied areas, and, for a young soil scientist with the right background, the world could be your oyster.

My concern is that, as a result of a fairly prolonged period in which interest in, and the teaching of soils seemed to wither, most people coming into soil science these days tend to do so via a ‘non-soil’ route or with only a minor soil background. However, I think the times they are a changing:

  • Firstly, the British Society of Soil Science has recognized this situation and has a continuing ‘Working with Soil’ initiative consisting of a series of 1 or 2 day training courses on different aspects of soil science and its practical applications. It’s worth checking these out as they carry BASIS points to help with your professional development.

  • Secondly, the recent Soil Security Programme supported by The Scottish Government, DEFRA, NERC & BBSRC is a very positive initiative that can be set alongside the currently hot topics of Soil Health & Sustainable Soil Management. Unsurprisingly the focus is largely biological but the opportunities for expanding this must be there.

  • Thirdly, there is a wealth of information on the distribution and characteristics of soil types across the whole of the UK resulting from the previous soil survey mapping programmes in its four countries. These are held in archives at Cranfield University Soil and Agrifood Institute, James Hutton Institute, Craigiebuckler, Aberdeen and the Department of Agriculture Northern Ireland. These should be exploited, especially if you need local soil information.

I have one final thought. As David Powlson pointed out in the first of this blog series, there is a ‘trade-off’ to be made between Society’s need to focus on the soil function of ‘food production’ and its’ ability to support other functions. However, it is also true that different soil types have significantly different abilities for supporting soil functions. That is why ‘function-specific’ classification systems such as HOST (water storage, and redistribution) and Agricultural Land Classification (food production) were developed. For some soil types therefore, there are also trade-offs to be made between a perceived need to optimise its’ possibly limited potential to perform a specific function and its’ possible greater potential for optimizing other important functions. The challenge for you future soil scientists is to identify such situations and remember that ‘one size does not fit all’. History tells us that the successful development of a sustainable management practice in one soil type may not be as successful when transferred to another rather different soil.

Good luck to you all!

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Back to my ‘roots’. Soil mapping in the West of Ireland. May 2012

Author: John Hollis