by Sir R. George Stapledon

Thirty-two years ago, when I first started serious work on the problems of grassland, Elliot's Clifton Park System of Farming was always at my elbow. I was then at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, and when, in 1912, 1 went to Wales, the first series of plots that I laid down were to test the Clifton Park mixtures under Welsh conditions; and I expect that what I then saw of the behaviour of chicory and of the animals' reaction (more particularly the reaction of sheep) to that plant has had much to do with my subsequent interest in mineral-efficient herbs. I suspect it is not an uncommon experience for a man to have been greatly influenced by a particular book and then, having absorbed the doctrine of the book as a part of his mental make-up, more or less to forget about the book as such. Elliot's book was, however, much in my mind during the last war, and at a lecture I gave in the early months of 1918 at University College, London (see 'Grassland and Arable' in Life and its Maintenance, London, 1919) I had occasion to remark 'That insufficient attention has been paid to the teaching of Mr. Elliot is, I fear, shown by the fact that The Clifton Park System of Farming has been for a long time, and still is, out of print.' The book -- agricultural classic though it undoubtedly is -- has remained out of print ever since, and it has been left to Michael Graham, in his penetrating little book Soil and Sense, to remind the agricultural fraternity of Elliot's work, and to pay just tribute alike to the man and to his far-seeing enterprise at Clifton Park.

I do not think that a more appropriate time than the present could be found to place a new edition of Elliot's work before the reading public. I say advisedly 'the reading public', and not merely the agricultural reader, because there is so much in Elliot's book which, although the last edition was published as long ago as 1908, applies with very great force to the national, as well as, merely to the agricultural, problems of to-day. The attitude of our author towards his subject was bold and statesmanlike, as is suggested by the sub-title to the most recent edition -- 'A Guide to Landlords, Tenants and Land-Legislators', which in cold truth, is a most apt and wholly justified description of his book: and it is as thus defined that I would wish most sincerely to recommend this new edition to all active and potential land-legislators, tenants and landlords, and, I might add, to all active and potential town and country planners, as, indeed, to every man and woman who is interested in the future and welfare of Rural Britain.

I feel under a personal debt of gratitude to the publishers of this new edition, because I have so much enjoyed, after the lapse of many years, the critical re-reading of Elliot's pages. I do not think I have properly realized until now how much I myself obviously owe to Elliot, and, what is of altogether greater importance, how much the agricultural industry as a whole owes to him. Elliot must rank as the father of the proper organization of a particular system of farming -- lea-farming, as he would have called it; ley-farming as I and those who think with me please to call it. Elliot was, however, far more than the organizer of a system of farming; he was a pioneer in many directions -- a man far in advance of the times; indeed, 'the times' have not yet caught up with a good many of his ideas. If we are to endeavour to place Elliot's work in proper perspective, we must, for a moment, consider the background against which he worked and wrote.

Agriculture was depressed, landowners and farmers alike were in financial difficulties; industry and the industrial outlook were omnipotent: cheap food was the cry, and the country was flooded with cheap imported food and with almost unlimited supplies of cheap cereals and oilcakes for livestock. Artificial manures were the thing, and were being pressed upon the farmer alike by the agricultural chemists and the manure merchants. Most of our seeds were imported and the condition of the agricultural seed trade as a whole left a great deal to be desired -- vast quantities of inferior seeds, especially grasses and clovers, were retailed and sold, cheaply it is true, to the farmer. Agricultural education and research were only beginning to be properly State-aided and organized in this country. That was Elliot's' background, and, most fortunately, his estate was not situate on fat land, and he chose to work on one of the poorest farms -- Clifton-on-Bowmont -- of the property. This choice was in conformity with one of his most penetrating edicts, namely that 'it is of great importance that the landlord should farm the most inferior portions of his property, in order, by his example, to show what can be done under the worst conditions'. What a different Britain at the outbreak of the last war and at the outbreak of this war, if landlords had been encouraged and everywhere had had the will to act on Elliot's advice! But, as I have said, Elliot saw further than most men of his day. Already he saw that we could not for much longer maintain our absolute industrial supremacy, and prophetically -- and pathetically, as it must seem to us now -- he quoted an old Indian proverb to the effect that 'the ploughers are the linchpin of the world', and went on to argue that if the ploughers were not kept active, then nothing else could be kept active indefinitely. His policy was based on two bedrock national essentials: the ploughing and sustained soil-fertility. By bold thinking and courageous experimenting, Elliot's master achievement was to show by his results that the ploughing and the sustained soil-fertility were inter-dependent, and that the lea (or ley) itself, necessarily the product of the plough, could be made the sure guardian of soil-fertility. (By 'lea' or 'ley' is to be understood a field sown with a mixture of grasses and clovers to form a sward, and to remain in sward for a predefined number of years. The longer leys are generally left down for four to six years. Elliot worked on the basis of the four-year ley.) I am, however, anticipating, and must say a little more about Elliot's general agricultural views before I consider his system in some little detail in relation to modern advanced practices and the knowledge at the disposal of the farmer to-day.

Elliot foresaw clearly that the chief hope for British agriculture was cheap production and a careful husbanding of capital resources, and that the chief capital resource of the landowner was the soil. He realized that fundamental agricultural changes were required by the times, and, not without reason, deplored the narrowness of the outlook alike of legislators, landowners and farmers: all of whom , in his experience, were wholly unwilling to learn or try new methods, so that he was forced to declare 'never revert to the past seems rather a wholesome maxim' -- a maxim which, if wholesome in his day, the event is now proving to be more wholesome still to-day, when the times are changing with a rapidity greater than even Elliot could have deemed possible. Elliot was a staunch advocate of State aid for agriculture in the realms of investigation and demonstration, and in safeguarding the genuineness of the seeds and other commodities essential to farming. Above everything else, he wanted experimental farms designed to explore the rival merits and economics of different systems of farming. His own farm at Clifton-on-Bowmont did not fulfil his ideal, because it demonstrated only his own system, and not his system in contrast to the older or to any other system. His was a great concept, and one that has never been fulfilled by the subsequent activities sponsored by State grants in aid of agricultural education and research. It is, however, true that towards the end of Elliot's experimenting, the then Board of Agriculture made him a grant of £50 per annum. to help defray his expenses. This, however, was but a niggardly recognition of his great work, and did nothing to inaugurate experimental farms of the type that he had envisaged. The nearest approach to experimental farms on the lines advocated by Elliot, and which, in recent years, I have myself strongly advocated, are those now operated by the Grassland Improvement Station and which are, in fact, both financed and administered by the Ministry of Agriculture itself: but during the war it is, of course, impossible to give a quite sufficiently experimental or contrasting bias to the operations conducted on these farms. The fact remains, however, that Elliot's seed has at last been planted, and the heavy responsibility of nourishing the seedling in its early stages of development has fallen primarily on my shoulders.

Elliot was adamant on the need for proper regionalization as applied more particularly to agricultural experiments, education and research. In this direction we have advanced some considerable way since Elliot's day, for we have the regional advisory centres based on the agricultural colleges and Agricultural Departments of the Universities. It is, however, to be feared that even yet we have a long way to go, but it is certain that the war is doing immensely much to hasten the realization of another of Elliot's visions -- that the scientist should become more practical and the farmer more scientific, for, as he clearly saw, until this comes about there is little hope of agriculture adjusting itself to the changes of the times. Science with practice is a false ideal, and equally false, as an ideal, is practice with science: to-day nothing less than scientific practice will serve the nation. Elliot, over forty years ago, realized this to be the only serviceable aim -- a seed of thought that has taken long to germinate, but which, having germinated, bids fair to develop at amazing speed and with results for the good of mankind beyond our powers of computation.

To turn now to the more technical aspects of Elliot's book. It is difficult for the farmers of to-day to realize the state of the seed trade when Elliot first started his operations. There was then no seed legislation in this country, and no official seed-testing station, and the quality of seeds sold, particularly in remote districts, was little short of a scandal. When I first went to Wales in 1912, I conducted a detailed investigation into the quality of the grass and clover seeds retailed in the Aberystwyth advisory province, and I was horrified at the state of affairs my inquiries revealed. Small wonder, then, that Elliot, who was installed at Clifton Park fourteen or more years before that date, pressed hard for the establishment of an official seed-testing station and for legislation to control the sale of seeds, and that he became firm friends with the late Mr. James Hunter, of Chester, who was a pioneer seedsman, and who established a great and well-earned reputation by his practice of selling seeds under a strict guarantee of germination and purity. Elliot did not live to see State control applied to the sale of seeds, for it was not until 1917 that Scotland, England and Wales were served by official seed-testing stations, and that legislation was passed making it incumbent upon the vendors of seeds to declare the germination and purity and, in certain cases, the county of origin of all seeds offered for sale. Elliot would have gone further than the legislation of 1917, for he would not have permitted entry of spurious seeds into the country. The Act has undoubtedly been responsible for great improvements, but it now requires amendments in certain important directions, and in sympathy with the changes of the times. In Elliot's day, broadly speaking, grass was just grass, and it was one of his achievements following upon the work of his friend Faunce de Laune to further emphasize the great difference between different species of grass-between ryegrass and cocksfoot, for instance. To-day, however, we think in terms of different varieties and strains of these particular grasses, and legislation will have to be devised to guarantee not only purity in respect of species, but equally in respect of variety and strain.

In some ways, it is, perhaps, unfortunate that Elliot associated himself so closely with Mr. James Hunter, because Hunter, being a progressive seedsman, based his seeds mixtures largely on those that had proved so successful at Clifton Park, and, in doing so, he did much to popularize the Elliot mixtures: but the very success of this popularization tended to lay too much stress on the seeds mixtures. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that the broad agricultural philosophy which Elliot propounded has received insufficient recognition and study, and not nearly enough attention has been paid to his system of farming as a system or to his thesis as to the merit of deep-rooted plants as such-all of which matters are severally and in the aggregate of far greater significance and of more enduring significance as affecting the future of British agriculture than his prescriptions for seeds mixtures.

I must now deal with his system. This country has a marvellous climate for the growing of grass and forage crops: cereals are expensive to grow and cheap to buy from overseas: roots are expensive to grow and call for a lot of manure. That was the position as Elliot saw it. He also had a healthy scepticism as to the value of artificial manures, and he had a robust aversion to purchasing anything that he might be able to produce more cheaply for himself. He therefore set out to devise a system which should be as self-contained as possible in respect of manures and fertility, and which would produce a certain amount of corn and such roots as he needed as cheaply as possible, as well as grass of the highest quality. The rotation practised in the vicinity of Clifton Park was corn; roots, corn; two years in lea: this Elliot altered to roots; corn; roots; corn; four years in lea. As he shows, the change was a complete success, and, in effect, he grew four crops (two of roots and two of corn) on the accumulated fertility built up from the four years in grass -- artificial manures (and only in small amounts) were only given to his root crops and latterly not always to them. Elliot, then, was a firm believer in humus, but in the formation of humus and fertility he relied to an overwhelming extent on a leguminous base and on deep-rooted plants. The real points at issue -- and they have never been settled and not critically investigated -- are: have deep-rooted plants as such a crucially important part to play, and can a sod consisting of deep-rooted plants and a leguminous base replace artificial manures or, for the matter of that, replace the dung-cart? The value and success of the long rotation (that is to say, a rotation pivoted on a lea or ley of say three to six years' duration) has now been proved up to the hilt by pioneering farmers all over the country, but most of such farmers have used more artificial manures than did Elliot, and have had the advantage of using wild white clover in their mixtures -- the seed of wild white clover was not in general use in Elliot's day, and is not, as such, mentioned by him. It is possible that the immense importance of the leguminous base as everywhere proved by the almost magical results produced by wild white clover has served to distract attention from the possible value of Elliot's deep-rooted plants -- for, in the main, since Elliot's day it is wild white clover that has always been used in ley mixtures, and, with the exception of cocksfoot, his deep-rooted plants have not been extensively employed. Elliot himself was always at pains to ensure a good leguminous base, and in this he relied largely on late-flowering red clover (he was, indeed, one of the first fully to recognize the value of this longer-lived red clover), alsike clover, kidney vetch and ordinary white clover, and he sometimes also used lucerne, birdsfoot trefoil and yellow suckling clover. This mixture of legumes, under his good management, would have ensured an abundant clovery herbage for at least two years, and by the fourth year (the year of ploughing down) in most cases it is certain that fair quantities of unsown and volunteer wild white clover would have come into his leys. It is, therefore, quite possible that all that Elliot has claimed for deep-rooted plants may, in fact, have been attributable to leguminous plants.

On re-reading Elliot's book, and on going back in retrospect over all my own experiences and experiments, I am bound to confess that I find it hard to explain to myself why I have never tried to settle the rival merits of deep roots and leguminous nodules. My present encounters with the difficult lias clays of Warwickshire cause me the more to wonder at my neglect of this subject, and incline me to turn towards deep roots. All said and done, it is difficult not to be impressed by Elliot's statement that 'the cheapest, deepest and best tillers, drainers and warmers of soil are roots'. We all know that lucerne is a great builder of fertility and rejuvenator of farmed-out soils -- and here we have an exceptionally deep-rooted plant, which is also a legume and nodule-bearing. How much of the value of lucerne is due to its deep roots and how much to the nodules? -- indeed an important subject for research! My chief interest in chicory, burnet, ribgrass and other deep-rooted herbs has been because their leaves are peculiarly rich in minerals, which fact is, no doubt, in large measure due to their deeply penetrating roots. Mineral-efficient herbs, if also palatable, are of great value to stock, and if they are also valuable because of their deep roots as 'tillers and drainers', then it is high time that the agricultural scientist pondered anew the teaching of Elliot.

Elliot did not carry his belief in the merits of humus and of compost (for his ploughed-in leys amounted to compost) to the point of excluding the use of artificial manures from his farming operations. It was indeed obvious to him from the start that he could not initiate his rotations on poor land and obtain high-quality leas without the use of phosphates, and, in the earlier years of his experiments, artificial manures, including phosphates, were always applied to his root crops. Perhaps the most important point which emerges from his experiments is that he found when on a particular field he had been round with his rotation a couple or more times (i.e. when in all he had ploughed in not less than eight-years' worth of leguminous-based and deep-rooted sod) he could totally dispense with artificial manures (including phosphates) for his root crop, and with little or no apparent diminution of crop. If that were indeed the case -- and we must remember that Elliot was a keen observer, and not adverse to the use of artificials -- then here again is matter for critical research and, incidentally, for further pondering deep roots. This evidence of Elliot's is of immense importance to-day, when the plough is active to an extent never before known in this country, and when the chief absolute limit to food production is shortage of phosphates. How far can we go with an initial dressing of phosphates, and to what extent can resort to the lea and Elliot's deep-rooted plants ease the phosphate position? -- alas! no man knows. For myself, I have once more to plead guilty, for before the war I was concerned to find out the maximum dressings of phosphates that were necessary to produce a given result quickly, and not, I fear, to find out the smallest dressing that could be made to serve a particular need. Elliot, I think, was nearer the mark, and, ironically enough, much nearer the mark created by our present acute needs and difficulties. Elliot can be forgiven for apparently not having foreseen the gathering war clouds preceding the first clash, but we of my own generation can never forgive ourselves for our shortcomings in foresight and for our lack of preparation in all directions for the second clash, and the judgement of history will be heavy upon us.

It will now be necessary to say a little about Elliot's actual mixtures, and as to his views on the preparation and management of leys. As we have said, the chief point about Elliot's mixtures was his insistence on deep-rooted plants and upon a proper leguminous base. He, however, sought deep roots not only in his legumes (late-flowering red clover and kidney vetch are both relatively deep-rooted) and in his herbs, but also in his grasses. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of his prescriptions was the fact that he would have nothing to do with perennial ryegrass, and that he was the first, or almost the first, practitioner to employ heavy rates of cocksfoot -- from 10 lb. to 14 lb. per acre. Cocksfoot is a deep-rooted grass and a good drought-resister. Elliot's objection to perennial ryegrass is understandable, and was probably to a large extent due to the teaching of Faunce de Laune, whose writings were a culmination of a long drawn-out ryegrass controversy. Actually, I do not think that the ryegrass controversy is settled even to-day, for, as Elliot would have been the first to admit, so much depends on the precise use to which a ley is to be put, and on the precise conditions of soil and climate, all of which are infinitely variable in this country. Elliot, we must remember, was operating on poor land initially out of heart. The ordinary perennial ryegrass of commerce (and that was the only seed then available) is not as productive as cocksfoot under such conditions, as has been borne out by experiments conducted over a long period by the Welsh Plant Breeding Station -- moreover, perennial ryegrass (and this applies equally to the new pedigree leafy strains) does not do itself full justice unless well mingled with wild white clover. Elliot did not use wild white clover. The need for a heavy seed rate of cocksfoot was amply confirmed by Gilchrist and by all subsequent workers. In my view, the success of Elliot's mixtures was primarily due to his heavy seeding of cocksfoot, his sensible and not-too-heavy seeding of late-flowering red clover (he only used 2 lb. per acre) and, perhaps, to the inclusion of chicory. The precise value of all the other ingredients in his mixtures is difficult to assess. He often used as many as eighteen species, with a total seed rate of as much as 48 lb. per acre. A heavy seed rate is, as such, a safeguard of success. I am exceedingly doubtful if either hard fescue (2 lb. per acre) or smooth-stalked meadow grass (1-2 lb. per acre) ever made a telling contribution to his swards, and I would suspect that on many of his fields the inclusion of these in his mixtures was simply money thrown away. Golden oatgrass, by the fourth year of his ley, may have contributed a little to the sward, but I doubt if in sufficient quantity to justify inclusion of this expensive seed. Meadow fescue at 5 lb. per acre and not set in competition with perennial ryegrass, probably served Elliot well, and tall fescue at 4 lb. per acre may have done so during the third and, more particularly, the fourth year. In view of the fact that Elliot was adverse to grazing his leys early in the first harvest year, I cannot think that he derived very much value from his tall oat grass. The kidney vetch, burnet and yarrow would all have afforded a measure of valuable grazing.

The above criticisms of his mixtures are based on my own early trials with his prescriptions in Wales and on many years of work devoted to the whole question of seeds mixtures. I do not criticize the basal theory underlying his mixtures; all I am, in effect, saying is that he could have obtained the results he desired with a reduced number of species, and with a considerable consequential saving of money. He relied, in the main, on late-starting and rather slowly getting-away species and he did not set these, his pivotal species, to compete with early and quick-starting species like broad red clover and the ryegrasses, although it is true that in a few of his earlier trials he did employ small quantities of Italian ryegrass.

Elliot's dicta relative to the early management of the ley must be read strictly as applicable to the type of mixtures he used -- late-starting and slow-to-get-away species. Thus, he makes a great point of not grazing the leys in the year of sowing (after the corn is cut) or, if growth has been unusually considerable, then only to graze lightly. He also objects to starting grazing too early in the spring. If his mixtures had included a just blend of early and late species -- that is to say, if he had included broad red clover and both the ryegrasses in his prescriptions -- then his advice would not have been sound. The advice Elliot gives represents a practice still largely current and which is, I think, carried too far, especially in these days when the Elliot mixtures as such are but little used, and when as well as representatives of the earlier starting species and strains wild white clover and some proportion of the leafy strains of the grasses contribute to so many of the mixtures employed for long-duration leys. Elliot, like many a shrewd practical man to-day, was too much afraid of the grazing animal pulling out the young seedlings, and did not, perhaps, realize the extent to which sheep, in particular, tread in young and struggling seedlings. But, as I have said, as applied strictly to his own mixtures, his advice was, in the main, sound enough; the more sound because he set much store by kidney vetch, a plant exceedingly palatable to sheep, and which, if heavily grazed, in the autumn of the year of sowing, is liable to be killed right out.

Who knows? -- it may be fashion, or is it the swing of the pendulum of knowledge? Elliot was a stalwart and successful protagonist of the complex seeds mixture -- and the complex mixture held the field for a good many years. Gilchrist, with his Cockle Park mixture, more famous (as a mixture) and much longer in popularity than Elliot's mixtures, struck a formidable blow for greater simplicity. The Aberystwyth researches with which I have been so long associated seemed to point to the desirability of an even greater simplification in mixtures. To-day, however, I and those associated with me are advocating more complex mixtures; a degree of complexity, however, which results from a blending of different strains of a few select species rather than from reliance on a large number of species. It may well be that as knowledge increases and the work of the plant-breeder proceeds, ways and means will be discovered of so managing and controlling leys that it will be possible to employ greater numbers of species (each represented by many strains) than at present, and in such a manner that each strain of each species will contribute in large quantity to the sward at some particular time of the year. Elliot would have been the last man to have expected or desired finality as applied either to his system, his seeds mixtures or to any other agricultural practice -- he was far too onward-seeing for that.

It is of more than passing interest to note that the first edition of Elliot's work, published in 1898, was entitled The Agricultural Changes required by These Times, and how to carry them out, the second and third editions, published respectively in 1900 and 1904, bore the same title, and it was only in the fourth edition, published in 1908, that the present title was adopted. Elliot had large numbers of visitors coming to Clifton-on-Bowmont, and it was in response to suggestions made by his visitors that he decided to alter the title of his book.

As to Elliot himself, I am afraid I can say very little. I can only regret I never had the pleasure of meeting him, nor have I ever visited Clifton-on-Bowmont. I started in all seriousness following in his footsteps in 1912, and he died in 1914; that was five years before the foundation of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station, which gave me the opportunity of starting definite research into many problems deeply influencing the concept of lea or ley farming, researches which, I flatter myself, would have been dear to Elliot's heart, and which, I think, would have earned his approval, had his period of maximum activity overlapped my own. As Michael Graham tells us, Elliot was born in 1837, and his agricultural career was divided roughly into two halves. The first was as a coffee-planter in Mysore and the second half as the pioneer of lea-farming on his estate at Clifton Park in Roxburghshire. His book shows Elliot to have been a man of strong character, of decided views, probably a robust individualist, and obviously well-read and most emphatically a man of sound judgement. That Robert Henry Elliot should take high place amongst the agricultural pioneers of this country there can be no doubt, and I think the trend of agricultural thought and events have widened in directions making The Clifton Park System of Farming a more important book to those of the present generation than even to Elliot's contemporaries. I think, moreover, that the agricultural scientist of to-day who will critically read all that Elliot has to say is more likely, because of his broader-based training and outlook, to derive inspiration for fruitful research than did the ultra-chemically-minded scientists of the closing years of last century and the opening years of the present century.

    R. George Stapledon
    September 1942

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