Dick Potts (1939-2017)

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.

Nicholas Aebischer and Nick Sotherton

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