field of grass with rectangular plots

Sir George Stapledon, grassland scientist and visionary for our times

This year is the centenary of the establishment of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station in Aberystwyth in 1919, and so a good time to remember its first Director, the agricultural pioneer Sir George Stapledon. His name and legend linger on at the university and his contribution to grassland science is recognized internationally, but the deeper significance of his work is almost forgotten now. It might seem strange that the biography of a grassland scientist should be entitled Prophet of the New Age, but that is a measure of the significance he attached to farming. He was interested above all in humanity and nationhood, and beyond his decisive contributions to grassland farming around the world and to the UK’s food supply during World War Two, he raised questions about the land, science and food production which still resonate today.

Sir George Stapledon in 1946 (© National Portrait Gallery, London under Creative Commons licence)

Sir Reginald George Stapledon FRS was an upper-class Englishman who studied science at Cambridge. He then joined the family business of shipping on the Suez Canal, but soon gave that up and returned to Cambridge, this time to study agriculture, followed by two years teaching at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester. In 1912 he became Agricultural Botany Adviser at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. By this time he had developed a conviction that farming was crucial to civilization and that Britain had lost its way, creating by its Victorian laissez faire economics “a huge urban population balanced on a derelict and disheartened countryside”.[i] He was determined to put things right.

His first task at the University was to carry out a survey of farms in what is now Ceredigion. That period, spent mostly outdoors and talking to farmers, inspired not only his vision for farming but a lifetime of reflection on ‘human ecology’, or the relationship between people and the land. At the time, farmers were rearing animals on permanent pasture which was neglected and unproductive, and relying on imported concentrates to fatten them for market. If they did occasionally plough the pasture up and grow a cereal crop, usually oats, they would reseed afterwards with the cheapest mix of grass seed they could find, and given the lack of regulation of the seed industry at the time, the result was still more poor quality pasture.

He next conducted a painstaking study of the seeds industry, analysing the weed impurities and germination of 900 seed samples, and his report on the ‘seeds scandal’ had an instant effect. The stage was set for a new approach to grassland. It was his view that grass should be treated as a crop like any other, to be improved by breeding and resown frequently as ‘leys’, or temporary pasture. Suitable mixtures of grasses and herbs would enrich the soil and produce good forage for animals. This was important not just for national food security but also for cultural reasons; he admired farmers, especially hill farmers, and wanted to see them stay on the land.

The Welsh Plant Breeding Station therefore set about breeding grasses, clovers and oats for the benefit of Welsh farms, developing new breeding methods and testing the new varieties on working farms; during 1929-1933 alone, 848 acres on 231 different farms in Wales were sown to crop trials. The success of this approach transformed hill and upland farming and was copied in many other countries, especially New Zealand. This scientific approach to the improvement of grassland is still central to the work of IBERS, the University institute into which the WPBS eventually morphed.

But Stapledon looked far beyond the trial plot and the laboratory. True to his view that human well-being and the land were tied up with each other, he put great care into building his team at the Plant Breeding Station; in his view good working relationships were just as important as technical knowledge. He had little time for ‘equal opportunities’; when asked to apply for the post of director he refused and insisted on being offered it instead. He then set about recruiting farmers’ sons for his staff, believing that they would have the necessary care and understanding for the work, and indeed many of them went on to develop successful careers of their own. He never learned Welsh, having decided that to do so would be pretentious, but he valued the bilingualism of his researchers and inspired a remarkable team spirit in the Station, where his staff idolized him. He remained Director until 1942, after which he moved on to other posts in England. He was knighted and made an FRS in 1939, and died in 1960.

Stapledon’s legacy has been wide reaching – and mixed. On the one hand he opened up a new area of agricultural research which according to Aberystwyth historian Richard Moore-Colyer was ‘largely responsible for the retention of the social, cultural and economic infrastructure of the hills and uplands of today’s Britain’. His campaign to increase domestic food production before the Second World War freed up shipping to fight the war rather than transport food, and is credited with a decisive role in British victories. On the other, however, he paved the way for a bias towards food production at the expense of wildlife, exemplified by the bright green ryegrass monocultures so conspicuous against the muted colours of the hills, and documented to shocking effect in the latest State of Nature report. His ‘plough-up’ campaign against permanent pasture also jars on modern ears.

Unintended consequences

It is a mark of his greatness however that he foresaw that his work would have unintended consequences. His fear was that his scientific successes would contribute towards human arrogance in our technological control over nature. This in turn would reinforce a materialistic view of life quite opposed to the rural virtues that he so admired in upland farmers; how this would actually play out, he could not foresee. As he put it to a meeting of the British Grassland Society in 1956:

“Man in putting all his money on narrow specialization and on the newly dawned age of technology has backed a wild horse which given his head is bound to get out of control. No, what man should have done, is to have backed learning and scholarship in the true meaning of those great words and then soon he would have realized that the most devastating of all the contraries is knowledge : ignorance…”[ii]

With the benefit of hindsight we can see how true this is, not just in terms of the lost biodiversity of our countryside but also in such other mixed blessings as the internal combustion engine, the nuclear reactor and the invention of plastic. Our food production methods are all of a piece with this technological revolution which has put human convenience first, and is only now facing a time to reckoning. At which point, it is worth turning to Stapledon again, for having identified the root of the problem – human conceit – he worked hard to find the solution.

Humanness

This he considered lay in what he called humanness, or ‘the creation of the whole human being through his social and personal relations, and of course in his relationship to Nature and the soil.’[iii] He considered that it would be the work of the 21st century to balance the material with the spiritual, drawing on the resources of creative power in our unconscious, in the same way that farming unlocks reserves of fertility held in the soil, and this was the New Age he looked forward to.

His visionary emphasis on the land as a basis for human society has inspired many thinkers, notably in the organic movement (although Stapledon himself was not a member, and was happy to use artificial fertilizer), and it still poses important questions for us today. How self-sufficient should we attempt to be? How do we create better links between town and country (he was an early proponent of national parks)? How do we make life in the countryside as intellectually rewarding as city life? What is the role of science?

We would do well to return to his works, now out of print but lurking in library stores, and enquire again into the relationship between people and nature. Stapledon does not have ready answers to modern questions like rewilding, Brexit and climate change, but he does suggest where, and how, we might look.


[i] Quoted in Waller, R. (1962) Prophet of the New Age. The Life and Thought of Sir George Stapledon FRS. Faber and Faber, London, p. 79.

[ii] p. 277.

[iii] p. 278

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