1902 Encyclopedia > Agriculture > Practice of British Agriculture: Introduction. Soils.

(Part 10)


Introduction. Soils.


We shall now endeavor to present a picture of British Agriculture in its present state. In doing this, we shall take much the same course which we should pursue, if we were asked to conduct a visitor over our own farm, and to give him a detailed account of its cultivation and management. In the case supposed, we should, first of all, explain to him that the farm comprises a great diversity of soils; that its fields are very variously circumstanced as regards climate, altitude, exposure, and distance from the homestead; and that in its tillage, cropping, and general management, regard must be had to these diversities, whether natural or artificial. We should then conduct him through the homestead, pointing out the position and uses of the various farm buildings and of the machinery and implements contained in them. From thence we should proceed to the fields to examine their fences and the tillage operations. With some observations about the succession of crops, and the manures applied to them, there would follow an examination of the cultivated crops, pastures, and meadows, of the livestock of the farm, and of the measures adopted in reclaiming certain waste lands belonging to it. This survey being completed, there would naturally follow some discussion about the tenure of land, the capital required for its profitable cultivation, the condition of farm labourers, the necessity for devoting more attention to the education of the agricultural community, and the duty of the Legislature to remove certain obstructions to agricultural improvement.


The soil constituting the subject-matter on which the husbandman operates, its character necessarily regulates to a large extent the nature of his proceedings. The soil or surface covering of the earth in which plants are produced is exceedingly varied in its qualities. Being derived from the disintegration and decomposition of the rocks which constitute the solid crust of the globe, with a mixture of vegetable and animal remains, soils take their character from that of the rocks from which they have chiefly been derived. There is thus a generally prevailing resemblance between the soils of a district and the rocks over which they lie, so that knowledge of the composition of the one affords a key to the character of the other. But this connection is modified by so many circumstances, that it is altogether impossible by the mere study of geology to acquire an easy and certain rule for determining the agricultural character of the soil of any particular district or field, as it has been the fashion with some writers of late years to assert. "When, indeed, we regard a considerable tract of land, we can for the most part trace a connection between the subjacent deposits and the subsoil, and consequently the soil. Thus, in a country of sandstone and arenaceous beds, we shall find the soil sandy; in one of limestone, more or less calcareous; in one of schistose rocks, more or less clayey. But even in tracts of the same geological formation, there exist great differences in the upper stratum, arising from the prevalence of one or other member of the series, or from the greater or less inclination of the strata, by which the debris of the different beds are more or less mixed together on the surface. The action of water, too, in denuding the surface at one part, and carrying the debris in greater or smaller quantity to another, exercises everywhere an important influence on the character of soils. Thus the fertility of a soil on the higher ground, from which the earthly particles are washed, is found to be very different from that of the valley to which these particles are carried. It is seen accordingly, that within the limits of the same geological formation, soils are greatly varied, and that the mere knowledge of the formation will not enable us to predicate the character of the soil of any given tract, either with respect to its texture, its composition, or its productiveness." [Footnote 307-1] Even a very limited acquaintance with the geology of Great Britain serves, however, to account for the exceedingly diversified character of its soils. The popular definition of soils --- and to these it is safest for practical farmers to adhere --- have respect to their most obvious qualities. Thus they are designated from their composition, as clays, loams, sands, gravels, chalks, or peat’s; or from their texture, in which respect those in which clay predominates are called heavy, stiff, or impervious; and the others light, friable, or porous. From the tendency of the former to retain moisture they are often spoken of as wet and cold, and the latter, for the opposite reason, as dry and warm. According to their measure of fertility, they are also described as rich or poor. The particular crops for the production of which they are respectively considered to be best adopted have also led to clays being spoken of as wheat or bean soils, and the friable ones as barley and turnips soils. This latter mode of discriminating soil is, however, becoming every day less appropriate; as those of the lighter class, when sufficiently enriched by suitable manuring, are found the most suitable of all for the growth of wheat; while the efforts of agriculturist are now successfully directed to the production of root crops on soils so strong as heretofore to have been reckoned unfit for the purpose. But still, such extreme diversities as we everywhere meet with in our soils must necessarily lead to a corresponding diversity in their agricultural treatment, and hence the necessity for keeping this fact prominently in view in every reference to British agriculture as a whole.


307-1 Low's Practical Agriculture, p. 42.

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