05 April 2017

Dick Potts (1939-2017)

G Richard (Dick) Potts

Dick was born in 1939 to a farming family in North Yorkshire. From an early age, he took a keen interest in the wildlife on the family farm, particularly on how the severe winter weather of 1948 impacted on the birds. 

Dick Potts

He studied zoology at Durham University, where he specialised in ecology and entomology, as well as taking part two years running in a Durham University expedition to the Faeroes to study seabirds. After graduation, he undertook a PhD on the breeding ecology of the shag on the Farne Islands, Northumberland. He was lucky to have witnessed at first hand the devastating impact of a toxic algal bloom on seabirds. This reinforced his interest in environmental poisons, initially sparked from observations as a boy on the farm and pursued with the examination of organochlorine residues in shag eggs. Dick was always fascinated by the intrinsic and extrinsic processes that regulated bird populations. He wanted to understand why a species was in decline so that he could devise ways of reversing that decline. He brought this philosophy to his next post, a move to the chalklands of southern England, where he was tasked by the Game Conservancy to unravel why the grey partridge was in decline and what could be done to turn this decline around.

The Partridge Survival Project started in 1968 in a Portakabin on North Farm, South Downs, West Sussex. With his farming background and ecological insight, he realised that to understand changes in partridge abundance, he needed to understand changes in the partridge environment. So began one of the most important, longest running and inspirational research projects on the ecology of partridges and arable farmland. From the Sussex work, Dick identified three main causes of the partridge decline: reduced chick survival through herbicide-induced reduction in chick-food invertebrates, lack of suitable nesting habitat reducing settling density, and poor nesting success arising from increased predation pressure. He brought them together in a computer simulation model to predict their relative importance and synergistic interaction, dubbing the trio the “three-legged stool” on the grounds that if one leg failed, the partridge “stool” would collapse.

At the same time, with his team of Drs Stephen Tapper, Paul Vickerman and Keith Sunderland, Dick initiated a detailed study of cereal ecosystems that became known as “The Sussex Study”. At the time, such work on farmland ecosystems was truly groundbreaking and controversial given that previous thinking on conservation concentrated on pristine habitats, not those worked by man to produce food, fuel or fibre. In 1974 he and Paul co-authored a seminal paper entitled “Studies on the Cereal Ecosystem” in the scientific journal Advances in Ecological Research. It became the inspiration for a generation of ecologists who went on to amass a huge body of research. In partnership with Southampton University alone, at least 20 doctoral theses were written based on the cereal ecosystem and inspired by Dick’s pioneering work.

In 1976 the Sussex team moved to the Game Conservancy’s headquarters in Fordingbridge, where Dick became the Director of Research in 1977. Through experimental work, he sought to verify the conclusions from the Sussex modelling and develop practical solutions that could co-exist with modern farming. This led first to the Cereal and Gamebirds Project, which developed selectively sprayed field margins known as conservation headlands, and mid-field tussocky grass strips known as beetle banks. Farm-scale experimentation demonstrated the efficacy of such management in restoring invertebrate abundance and improving partridge chick survival, while agronomic studies evaluated practical farming issues. Second, the Salisbury Plain Experiment demonstrated conclusively that generalist predators affected not just partridge breeding success but also their breeding abundance, in contradiction with accepted ecological wisdom but in line with traditional gamekeeper lore. Meanwhile, the Sussex Study did not stop and annual monitoring continues to the present day, making it the longest-running study of farmland ecosystems in Europe, if not the world.

His passion for partridges continued unabated throughout his life. Most authors aspire to write one monologue on their chosen species. Dick wrote two, the first one in 1986 covering the Sussex story of partridges, pesticides, predation and farming, and the second one in 2012 ranging more widely across partridge species and their biology, published in the prestigious Collins New Naturalist series.

Dick was, however, by no means a single-species biologist. He turned his skills to conservation issues concerning other species including brown hare, red grouse, woodcock and lapwing. Research on these species has been taken up by GWCT staff and so our knowledge of game and associated species improves, thanks to Dick’s original inspiration.

Dick’s ideas were often viewed as pioneering, or even before their time, so it often took a while for the scientific community to catch up with them. Dick was talking about the pressures of modern farming affecting the survival of farmland birds 20 years before government or its agencies also reached this conclusion. But Dick never criticised farmers for their action. He did not play the ‘blame game’; he was more interested in what could be done to improve the situation. Dick always thought positively. Among Dick’s original thoughts were: 

  • That pesticides operating via the disruption of the food chains of farmland birds could remove the insects eaten by chicks and also remove the host plants of these insects, thus causing a decline.
  • That farmers and farming held the key to reversing the declines of farmland birds, and it was possible to devise management solutions compatible with modern agriculture.
  • That the removal of common predators, seasonally and legally, could improve the breeding success and breeding abundance of ground-nesting birds both in lowlands and uplands.
  • That raptor predation could put a stop to driven red grouse shooting and its associated benefits to upland breeding waders, so that a managed solution was needed to resolve the grouse-raptor conflict. 

Dick became Director-General of the Game Conservancy Trust in 1993 until he retired in 2001. During that period, he oversaw the transformation of Lord and Lady Allerton’s gift of Loddington Farm into an influential demonstration farm, where the Trust turned “Words into Birds”.  He was also the driving force behind the Joint Raptor Project, which quantified the impact of hen harrier predation on red grouse demography at Langholm Moor, in southern Scotland. He also coined the phrase “conservation through wise use” which became a byword for sustainable harvesting of game species. In retirement, Dick remained active, continuing to work on his beloved Sussex study area and helping to bring about the remarkable recovery of the grey partridge on the Norfolk Estate there, after the Estate set about implementing all of Dick’s knowledge about grey partridges. For all of his working life, Dick was told that thriving farmland wildlife could not co-exist with modern farming. Dick proved the doubters wrong - he was good at that.

Also, in retirement, Dick worked with the World Pheasant Association (WPA), the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC).

Almost up to his death, you could hear Dick’s laughter and enthusiastic, bubbly personality filling the corridors at the Fordingbridge HQ of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, as he discussed the latest analysis of the long-term data from Sussex or how the lapwing were improving on the Norfolk Estate or how ground beetle assemblages were changing in the cereal fields of West Sussex.

Dick’s drive, enthusiasm, vision and ‘can do’ attitude inspired several generations of scientists and his legacy will continue in the GWCT. He will be sorely missed.

The funeral of Dr Dick Potts will be held at 2pm on Tuesday 25 April at St Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge, Hampshire. A reception will be held afterwards at the GWCT, Burgate Manor, Fordingbridge.

Nicholas Aebischer and Nick Sotherton


By David Hill

Dick was a remarkable man who had a remarkable life. He touched the lives of thousands, and without doubt he was a giant in the conservation world. He joined the Game Conservancy in 1968, becoming Director of Research in 1977 and then Director General until his retirement in 2001. He was instrumental in the development of the careers of so many who over time became leaders in their own right in the conservation movement – colleagues of mine 30 years ago such as Mike Rands, Nick Sotherton, Pete Robertson, Peter Hudson, Rhys Green, Graham Hirons, Nicholas Aebischer, and many many others since.

From as far back as he can remember Dick had a huge passion for wildlife, and for facts and figures. His account of the question he posed himself ‘why was I so driven by curiosity about wildlife’ makes fascinating reading. His father, a farmer, was the key to his curiosity – himself an accomplished amateur meteorologist, natural historian and avid reader of all things wildlife – this clearly laid the foundation stone for Dick’s professional success and his love of numbers.

Born in December 1939 Dick played and later worked on the family farm a stones throw from what was to become the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Even as a very small boy he pressed his mother at bedtime to read him, again and again, Enid Blyton’s Countryside Rambles - a month by month account of seasonal changes in countryside wildlife. Dick ‘s persuasive capacity was a defining characteristic as we all know!

At the age of 9 he established a vegetable garden, caught rabbits and bred guinea pigs that he sold at Bedale Market, and sold his own reared lambs to locals which, in his own words ‘provided me with money for books, subscriptions and travel’. By this time the farm had grown to 550 acres and had an immense wildlife interest. But his first encounter with pesticides came in 1951 when he talked to a farm hand who was drinking copious amounts of milk to counter the noxious effects of the herbicide Denocate, that he was spraying on the crops. That single event was to set the scene for a lifetime’s devotion to understanding and then publishing the impacts of agro-chemicals on wildlife, particularly farmland invertebrates and birds. He had recognized the damage they would do long before the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. He was 12 years old!

He recounts sometimes taking the carthorse as a means of getting to school and recalls that ‘Mr Hardisty looked after the older children and took a kindly interest in me having found out I was building up a collection of fossils, skulls, feathers and birds eggs. We exchanged some fossil Molluscs from Saltburn and he gave me a large crystal of Fluorspar that resides in my office. However, he also caned me for refusing to learn poetry parrot fashion and once, very lightly, for following the Bedale Hunt across the fields up to Hauxwell when I should have stayed in school listening to comparatively boring stuff’.

Dick’s mother sold her piano to enable him to attend Scorton Grammar school which was the making of him, not least because he had to cycle the 14 miles there and back everyday. He describes an early school trip ‘As organiser of the school trip to the Hancock Museum on 11 February 1956, I wrote to the Curator (Mr C E Fisher) thanking him for taking us around, but pointing out that the marsh tit nest was wrongly labeled! We both realized this was because Willow Tit and Marsh Tit were not distinguishable in 1863 when the nest was collected (see later)’. In 1952 at the age of 13 he set up a monitoring scheme of the birds at Hornby Lake not too far from home.

Little would he have realized then, but in 1979 his data formed the basis for my own doctorate with Dick as my supervisor. How cool is that for a 13 year old!! His early teenage years were dominated by building hides out of hessian to watch Lapwing nests, finding treecreeper roost sites, recording bird migration and return dates, conducting dawn counts, running a bird ringing station on the farm, recording cereal harvest dates, walking the fells and dales, climbing mountains in the Lakes, and attending numerous field courses at bird observatories and the like.

One can see how his early life, his farming background, his passion for the natural world, his inquisitive mind, his practical field skills, his acute talent for observation and recording, and his infectious personality, set him up so well for a distinguished career in conservation. More than anyone else he understood the route by which modern farming practices were devastating biodiversity in the farmed landscape.

Scores of scientific papers and books produced either directly by Dick or under his leadership created the most important research organization of its kind; in fact arguably one of the best ecological research teams that has ever existed. A very senior member of the largest conservation body in the UK said to me many years ago – if you want to understand farmland ecology and wildlife management, you need look no further than the Game Conservancy.

Dick knew his arable plants, insects and birds in equal measure and the collection of long-term datasets was of course a passion of Dick’s. For example, the Partridge Survival Project he set up, which later became known as the Sussex study, is in its 49th year, and probably the longest running study of farmland ecosystems in the world.

It has yielded so much data that numerous PhD studies (for example 20 at the University of Southampton alone) have been completed using it and many significant work programs spun off from it such as the Salisbury Plain experiment, the Cereals and Gamebirds Research Project, the Joint Raptor Project, and initiatives such as conservation headlands and beetle banks. He carried out March pair counts and August stubble counts of his beloved Grey Partridge, the species that is inextricably entwined with the name Dick Potts, from 1968 to shortly before his illness.

Of course, it was often pointed out to him that the Grey Partridge began its catastrophic decline as soon as he started work on it! But such is the nature of ecological study. In the 1980’s all the talk was about the great book. It consumed Dick and his colleagues for many months. It was the Grey Partridge Bible and we were all rather proud of having played a small part in it but also very glad when it finally made it into print! A second book followed in 2012 published in the prestigious Collins New Naturalists series, in addition to numerous further scientific papers.

But what of the man I, we, worked with. He had a wicked sense of humour and a massive and impressive personality. Everyone liked him. He could persuade farmers, gamekeepers, landowners, politicians and officials in equal measure to look at things in a particular way. As Mark Avery put it recently ‘It was difficult to say ‘no’ to Dick - because he was so likeable one always wanted to say ‘yes’. But if you did enter a debate with him, you had best be sure you had your facts right.

One of Dick’s defining features was that he would always give credit where credit was due. If it was your idea he would openly say so. I vaguely recall tweaking an equation in one of his famous population models. ‘By lad you’re a genius’ he would say. At the impressionable age of 25 I was chuffed to bits at the recognition. But, of course, he said that to everyone!

He can of course take personal credit for the establishment of the Allerton Project at Loddington some 25 years ago. It was his infectious personality alone that secured the commitment, support and funding for this major demonstration scheme which has become such a great success. And right up until his illness he was working with the Duke of Norfolk and his excellent keepers on the Arundel Estate, restoring phenomenal numbers of farmland birds – linnets, lapwings, corn buntings, skylarks and of course grey partridges, which climbed from 3 to 300 pairs under his guidance. I saw the results with my own eyes just a few years ago. Absolutely spectacular.

Although he was our boss, I and my colleagues at the time considered him a great friend too. He was always approachable - he wasn’t much of a supporter of corporate hierarchies. I have two particularly vivid memories of him that I will share with you. One was that he was an avid watcher of Top of The Pops and I remember many occasions when I and others would go around to his house to watch it before I could afford a TV.

He liked the charts – I think because they had numbers in them! He also had a blatant disregard for Health and Safety Policy not least evidenced by his own ‘atrocious’ driving. I remember on one occasion in my mid 20’s, I was nominated to drive Dick from Fordingbridge to the Aucterarder Game Fair. We borrowed Mr Van Oss’s blue Vauxhall Cavalier estate and it was the best car I had ever driven. Maybe I was nominated because there was a greater chance of us reaching Scotland intact.

However, doing 80mph on the A1 Dick decided to try and fix a rattle from the dashboard. He proceeded to lie in the footwell, screwdriver in hand, with his legs stuck up over the seat. He didn’t fix it, and it was terrifying! In fact one of the only things he struggled with was DIY. He was a great believer in a large screwdriver applied with force, and if that failed, a very large hammer, often in combination with the screwdriver, which usually did the trick. Often it was followed by copious applications of cement or wood filler.

Well Dick, there are very few who will ever be able to hold a candle to you. What a fitting legacy it would be if all farmers adopted your approaches to restoring biodiversity – it wouldn’t take long and you deserve nothing less. You were an amazing chap and all the better for being a Yorkshireman through and through. And on those very rare occasions when I might have a good idea I can guarantee I will hear you say ‘By lad you’re a genius’. Of course, in fact, it was you Dick who was the genius, in every sense of the word.

By Julie Ewald

We are here today to celebrate the life of Dick Potts and the fact that we were lucky enough to have known him.  He accomplished much in his life and he could do this because people liked him.  And they liked him because he understood the difficulties they faced.  He knew that to solve the problems of the countryside you needed the solutions to come from the people in the countryside.  That included farmers, gamekeepers, landowners.  Those who had a vested interest in the outcome. 

It was sometimes difficult for the rest of us to keep up with him.  Dick did not suffer from indecision. He made his mind up, usually after careful thought, but often at breakneck speed compared to the rest of us.  Once his mind was made up, he acted.  I reflected on this last week with Alastair Leake who, it seems, had a similar experience to myself, as Dick helped to recruit both of us to work for the Trust, though on separate occasions.

After the interview, you were shuffled out of the room, there was a bit of discussion (in my case Nicholas was involved) and then you were presented with “Will you take the job?”.  No beating around the bush.  No long drive home followed by a very polite letter offering you the job (though for the HR people in the room that did happen). There was just a very straightforward question “Will you take the job?”  And I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to say yes to that question.  I am sure that Alastair and the rest of us who were lucky enough to have worked with, by, for Dick over the years feel the same.

It was the same side of Dick that came out if you were lucky enough to spend time with him working on the Sussex Study or in other projects he was involved with during his time at the Trust.  Ecologists often talk about passion for conservation but passion did not cover the half of it.  Counting partridges with Dick was an experience.  He recorded his counts in Red Pen, in large writing and with multiple exclamation points to emphasise what he was recording.  There was an occasional Brilliant!!!  He never lost his excitement at seeing a covey of grey partridges and this excitement was infectious.  Anyone who went counting with him became a partridge enthusiast, it was as simple as that.

This is not to say that there were no problems in the field. But most of that punishment (and I use that term for a reason) was meted out to the land rover tyres.  Dick did not dawdle about the tracks in Sussex.  During the June insect samples, he attacked the need to get around a hundred cereal fields in 2 days with customary gusto, much to the detriment of the tyre rubber and the chagrin of Steve Moreby.

The worst was when we went through a tyre, the spare and then “stole” Mark Watson’s land rover to complete the sampling, leaving poor Mark to wait for the guys from the tyre repair place to sort out the various flats.  I have lost count of the number of times that the farmers on the study area have helped Dick and the team change tyres, fix tyres, called people to sort tyres and basically baled us out.  Because they liked him.

Evenings in Sussex consisted of determining who had seen the biggest covey, or the nicest bird or an interesting arable weed.  There would be heated discussions about partridges, other farmland birds, insects and plants, the latest scientific paper, gamekeeping and farming. And of course, Dick would order an amazing knickerbocker glory – and we were all told that we could not tell Olga!!  I think she knew, but then she liked him.  As did we all.

There are many generations of ornithologists and ecologists who have benefitted from “Counting in Sussex”.  They will carry on Dick’s legacy both at the Trust and elsewhere.  I am sure I speak for all of us when I say we will do our best to ensure that his approach to conservation carries on.  Practical, workable solutions.  Most importantly involve people on the ground “turning words into birds”. 

Dick was always 20 years ahead of his time.  I expect that it will take another 20 years for the rest of us to catch up with him.  We will miss him every day of those 20 years and then some.

By Peter Knight

My goodness wasn’t he a very special person?

Prior to 2002 Dick would be seen around the Norfolk Estate at Arundel periodically whilst carrying on his Sussex Study Area project, which is now recognised, as most of you know, as the world’s longest running cereal eco system survey.

For many years, the area had been struggling to sustain a population of grey partridges. It was when Dick came into the Estate Office in 2002 his comments was: “Unless we do something immediately the grey partridge will be extinct on the South Downs within 5-10 years”.  Following that meeting, The Duke of Norfolk has gone down on record as saying “Not on my watch”.  From then on Dick went from being an occasional visitor to becoming part of the furniture.

In the spring of 2003 we started, what was at the time, an ambitious project of trying to restore the fortunes of the wild English Grey Partridge on the Estate.  This has, to a large extent, been achieved by using Natural England’s agri-environmental schemes.

He was absolutely correct in saying that the key to restoring the grey partridge was that our farming had to change back to a good rotational farming system, providing a patchwork quilt type of landscape along with habitat and food source, whilst at the same time farming commercially.

We have made this project work by working as a team, and Dick has certainly assisted in that respect.  He had more knowledge about grey partridges in his little finger than most of us could acquire in a lifetime.  With his help and putting his knowledge into practical solutions we have managed to reverse the decline in numbers and turn “Dick’s dream into reality”. 

With Dick, the partridges ALWAYS came first.  We all know how persuasive he could be and we never said “No”.

One of his, shall we say, more interesting ideas: to help prevent the partridges from flying into fences was to get us to cut strips of polythene and tie them to the fence line as a deterrent.  Well I can tell you that it worked for the partridges but was not such a fun exercise for us!!!   Thank goodness all of the hedges have now matured enough to eliminate this requirement!

I remember in particular, when Natural England introduced their new Flagship Higher Tier Scheme in 2016, and Dick learnt that the option of the undersowing of grass within a cereal crop had been removed, his classic reaction was, and you can hear him saying this: “WHAT THE HELL are Natural England playing at?”.  It is widely recognised that the under-sowing of grass in a cereal crop is the perfect environment for the sawfly larvae on which the partridges feed.   However, all is well due to the efforts of the GWCT, as we have found a way around the issue and we are back on course.

He had an in-depth knowledge of plants, insects and birds and it is thanks to him, that we are now able to pass this information on to others through our farm tours and talks on “Restoring Biodiversity to the Estate”.

I thought it was particularly poignant that on the morning that Dick passed away we found our first lapwing nest of the season.    I can now report that last week four chicks hatched off.

What Dick leaves behind is not something that is engraved in stone monuments, but something that is woven into the lives of others.

In his absence, his legacy will live on and he will always be remembered for his devotion to environmental objectives and solutions.

He will be greatly missed by us all.