Donald (Don) Mackney (1922-2017) - An Appreciation

Don Mackney who died on January 23rd 2017 aged ninety-four was Head of the Soil Survey of England and Wales from 1977 to 1985 at a critical time in its history.

Don was born on August 19th 1922 in the Ogmore Vale, South Wales. The son of a grocer, he was, throughout his life, very proud of his Welsh roots. As a child he was good at sports and successful at school and in 1941 went to Bristol University to read Geology with subsidiary Chemistry and Zoology, at the same time doing compulsory military training. In 1942 he was called up into the army, and after further training he was commissioned and joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Landing in France shortly after D-Day, his Battalion was soon engaged near Bayeux and Don with others was injured by mortar fire, then captured. He was at first taken to hospital locally and then to a bigger hospital in Paris where some of the shrapnel in his back was removed. After a series of slow, complicated train journeys from camp to camp, strafed by Allied aircraft, he was finally interned near Brunswick until released by the Americans in April 1945. On his return home he found that his family had been told that he had been killed in action and had received a letter of condolence from the King.  In August 1945 Don was posted to the South Wales Borderers, with whom he went to Palestine and then Cyprus before being demobbed in February 1947 after five-years’ service.

Don returned to Bristol in October to resume his studies. Graduating in 1950, he then joined the Soil Survey of England and Wales, being posted to Lancashire to train as a surveyor under Edward Crompton. In 1953 he moved permanently to Wolverhampton and started survey of the Church Stretton sheet. Later he was joined by Paul Burnham and the map and accompanying memoir were published in 1966. During his time at Wolverhampton, other projects included a regional survey of the West Midlands as a contribution towards an International Map of Europe, maps of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and of Forestry Commission land. In 1962 he moved to Rothamsted to work on the soils of Buckinghamshire and partly to help the then Head of Survey, Dr Osmond. At this time Don was active developing various practical applications of soil survey including Land Capability, aspects of field drainage and the run-off potential of river catchments. In 1966 was appointed Regional Officer for South East England.

In 1972 the Rothschild Report changed the funding of the then Agricultural Research Council (ARC) from the Department of Education and Science to the Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF). This change, and the Government’s desire for economy, eventually cast a dark shadow over the ARC and its various institutes, including the Survey. So much so, that immediately after Don was promoted to Head of Survey in 1977, he was requested for plans to meet cuts of funding of 5%,10%, and 15%. Later that year he was recalled from holiday by the Director of Rothamsted to be told that the Minister of Agriculture was disposed “to do away” with SSEW. This was the beginning of a long struggle for survival that lasted beyond Don’s tenure, which in 1983, was extended two years beyond normal retirement age, because of the uncertainties. Don, under pressure much of the time, carried the burden of the various, ever changing, threats. He was very persistent and persuasive and took every opportunity to   encourage support from various bodies and individuals as well as dealing with ARC and the whims of the Priorities Board of MAFF. The staff, meanwhile worked on normally, on a MAFF contract to complete a National Map (at a scale of 1:250,000) within five years, and completed the National Soil Inventory as well as a wide range of smaller projects.  Representations to Whitehall led to a visit to Rothamsted of a House of Lords Select Committee on Agriculture in early May 1984. The committee were much impressed by the work of the Survey but to little avail. Six weeks later Don was informed that the Minister (The Right Honourable Michael Joplin) was about to announce MAFF plans to cut funding by half in 1986/7 and then a year later to nothing.

After his retirement, a more gradual taper of funding was achieved following further intensive lobbying. SSEW transferred to Cranfield Institute of Technology’s Silsoe campus in 1987 with a much reduced staff and became the Soil Survey and Land Research Centre and then the National Soil Resources Institute. Strategic national soil survey was never resumed.

Don experienced almost the entire lifespan of nationally-organised soil survey in England and Wales and, as Director, oversaw its greatest achievement: the National Soil Map which, with its six accompanying bulletins, remains the single most instructive source of information on the soil resources of England and Wales. It is the basis of the national digital soil vector dataset and has stood up well to critical examination.  The parallel National Soil Inventory project has shed light on heavy metal contamination in soils and on trends in soil organic carbon.

Don was a BSSS member and active in the Society’s affairs at field meetings and symposia. He was a member of Council and then President from 1985 to 1986. Much liked and admired by his colleagues he led the Survey vigorously with cheerful enthusiasm and was ever a keen advocate for soil science.  On retirement in 1985 he was awarded the OBE, as he put it, for his troubles. 

A great family man, Don is survived by three sons, two daughters and fifteen grandchildren.

J M Hodgson and T R E Thompson