Taita’s soil re­search le­gacy


‘‘Don’t treat soils like dirt!’’ was the catch-cry of­ten heard at the Soil Bureau in Taita.

For­mer staff re­cently held a re­union and He­len Ket­tles, who helped or­gan­ise it, said it was a great suc­cess, and a re­minder of the world lead­ing re­search that once went on in Taita.

At its peak, there were more than 100 sci­en­tists and sup­port staff.

It car­ried out lead­ing-edge re­search, study­ing ev­ery­thing from how soils be­have in earth­quakes to deal­ing with the ef­flu­ent cre­ated by cows.

In 1992, it was re­struc­tured and be­came part of Land­care, a Crown Re­search In­sti­tute.

For many of the at­ten­dees, it was the first time they had caught up with each other since the re­struc­ture.

Ket­tles was in­volved in a num­ber of re­search projects, in­clud­ing find­ing a way to deal with the ef­flu­ent pro­duced in milk­ing sheds.

The team she was part of re­searched spray­ing the ef­flu­ent onto pas­ture with dif­fer­ent soil types. This is now a stan­dard prac­tice for farm­ers to utilise the nu­tri­ents and pro­tect wa­ter­ways.

The Taita site was cho­sen be­cause of the num­ber of di­verse catch­ments, which al­lowed them to study na­tive bush, ex­otic for- es­try and pas­ture.

Their data formed the ba­sis of cur­rent mod­els re­lat­ing to lan­duse ef­fects and cli­mate change in New Zealand.

Soil was used to mon­i­tor the im­pact of French nu­clear test­ing in the Pa­cific.

Their Oron­gorongo Field Sta­tion car­ried out re­search on the con­trol of in­tro­duced pests, in­clud­ing pos­sums, and is the ba­sis for Preda­tor Free NZ move­ment.

Ket­tles re­mem­bered her time at the bureau fondly and said it had a fam­ily feel to it.

Her strong­est me­mory was of the far-reach­ing im­pact of the re­search car­ried out.

Its rep­u­ta­tion spread in­ter­na­tion­ally and a num­ber of sci­en­tists, such as Bob Brockie and John Flux, re­mained in­flu­en­tial.

Flux was one of the at­ten­dees and now lives in Lower Hutt. He con­tin­ues to re­search the im­pact of do­mes­tic wildlife.

‘‘He is just in­cred­i­ble. He has amaz­ing knowl­edge. ‘‘

The his­tory of the bureau dates back to the early 1930s, when bush sick­ness in cows was a ma­jor prob­lem.

Sci­en­tists Leslie Is­sott Grigg and Nor­man Tay­lor dis­cov­ered cows were be­com­ing sick in the cen­tral North Is­land due to cobalt de­fi­ciency.

Pro­vid­ing a cobalt en­riched cats on na­tive salt lick opened up large tracks of land for farm­ing.

At the 50th re­union, in 1980, the Direc­tor-Gen­eral of DSIR said they were ‘‘rugged in­di­vid­u­al­ists and in­no­va­tors; ded­i­cated, hard­work­ing sci­en­tists; field rather than lab­o­ra­tory’’ peo­ple.

Their for­mer fa­cil­ity, next to Taita Col­lege, is now used by the Learn­ing Con­nex­ion which teaches art.

Re­union at­ten­dees were pleased to see the build­ings be­ing so well cared for.

Many orig­i­nal fix­tures re­main and some of the old lab­o­ra­tory benches have been re­mod­elled into artist’s work­ing desks.

There is al­ready talk of hav­ing an­other re­union and a Face­book page had been set up to keep in touch.

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