Professor Duncan Poore – global conservationist

Roger Crofts, Founder CEO of SNH, and Des Thompson reflect on the life of the late Duncan Poore, former Director of The Nature Conservancy.

Duncan poses with Sukey on a Highland walk in 2006: Photo: J. Blaser

Duncan poses with Sukey on a Highland walk in 2006: Photo: J. Blaser

On 12 April a Service of Remembrance was held in St John the Evangelist, Inverness, to mark the life of Professor Duncan Poore. Aged 90, Duncan passed away in Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, on 22 March.   For many present-day ecologists and environmentalists, this name may not mean a lot, but it should, for Duncan played a key role in shaping how we describe and conserve habitats in Britain, and beyond, and influenced the policies and practises underpinning protected areas and sustainable forest management. Furthermore, Duncan was influential internationally in IUCN as Scientific Director and helping to draft the seminal World Conservation Strategy.

Scotland’s habitats get the international treatment

Duncan took an MA in natural sciences (specialising in botany) and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. In the excellent special issue of the Botanical Journal of Scotland (Volume 49, Part 2, 1997) on ‘Scottish Vegetation: Plant Ecology in Scotland’, Charles Gimingham introduces us to the work of several pioneers, commenting: ‘The foundations of British vegetation science were laid in Scotland around 1900, based on a phytosociological approach’. Charles reminds us that some forty years later, a student of Professor Harry Godwin FRS (one of the great ecologists and paleaoecologists of the 20th century, based at Cambridge) was despatched to Montpellier to absorb the Braun-Blanquet method for describing and classifying vegetation. That student, Duncan Poore, did so and returned to the Breadalbane mountains to apply new techniques to describing mountain vegetation (publishing a series of papers in the Journal of Ecology in 1955). Two years later he published a classic paper with Donald McVean in the same journal, entitled ‘A new approach to Scottish mountain vegetation’, and five years after that the classic book Plant Communities of the Scottish Highlands by Donald and Derek Ratcliffe was published. That sequence of events marked a fundamentally new and enduring approach to describing British upland vegetation which resonates today (see An Illustrated Guide to British Upland Vegetation, by Alison Averis and colleagues, and reprinted in 2014).

Duncan rapidly developed a career in research and nature conservation, serving as Professor of Botany and Dean of Science at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, and in 1966 becoming the Director of the Nature Conservancy (predecessor of the Nature Conservancy Council, NCC, later giving rise to SNH in Scotland and the JNCC in GB).   This was a remarkable rise for a young man who had published his doctoral research only ten years earlier.

A cadre of greats

This was a heady time for nature conservation, with exceptional people involved in practical and scientific conservation work. Scientists and conservationists such as Derek Ratcliffe, Adam Watson, Donald McVean, Jim Lockie, David Jenkins and Dick Balharry held sway and profoundly influenced the conservation and management of Scotland’s wildlife. One of that cadre, J. Morton Boyd (former Director of the NCC in Scotland), gives a hint of the value and distinction of his colleagues. He describes in his evocative memoir The Song of the Sandpiper (1999), how as a ‘freshly minted PhD facing a new life’ he became the NCs first ‘Regional Officer’ for the West Highlands and Islands in 1957. He was selected for the job (at the rank of Scientific Officer, what is now termed C-grade, and paid £860 per annum) by a group of eminent scientists including three Fellows of the Royal Society. We doubt that any interview board for the most senior environmental jobs today would hold such a wealth of talent, but back in the 1950s and 60s the mark of importance attached to conservation positions was exceptional.

The conservation ‘split’ and Duncan’s departure

On 23 October 1973, the ‘split’ of the government’s conservation movement occurred with the conservation arm of NERC becoming the NCC, and the smaller research component formed as the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (now the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and still part of NERC). Duncan left to join the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and flourished developing an international career in conservation.

A crucial international role and profile

Duncan had been involved, as many of his predecessors and successors have, in the IUCN. He served as a member of the Executive Committee from the late 1960s, before his appointment as the senior ecologist, later as the Scientific Director (an eminent position given the status which IUCN constituents placed on conservation science) and then as Acting Director-General in the mid-seventies. He was involved and instrumental in many of the major strategic developments on nature conservation in the 1970s, including drafting a new mandate for the IUCN focussing more on resolving the causes of conservation decline, informed with the best scientific evidence available, and ensuring that people were closely linked with the nature conservation agenda: all themes redolent today! He also led the ecological team preparing conservation guidelines for tropical forests, mountains and arid lands: a first that set the standard for subsequent work. He played a key role as Acting D-G in steadying the IUCN during a period of turmoil, displaying a safe pair of hands in sorting out such necessary but difficult issues as accounting procedures and salary scales, and displayed good conciliatory skills within the organisation and with key partners such as WWF and UNESCO. He was not appointed to the permanent post of D-G because of the undue influence of a key figure who wanted his own man: something’s never change! As a result, Duncan went back to the academic world. But the global conservation movement did not lose him as he a played a significant role in drafting the World Conservation Strategy, the seminal document inputting ultimately to the Rio Earth Summit deals in1992.

A good insight into Duncan’s philosophy is what he wrote in 1977:

“The Union is concerned with values more, I would say, even than with science. For science should be the servant not the master of mankind. Our strategy must be firmly based in realism, but it must move ahead with vision. We should be the architects of guided change in the direction of increasing the well-being of mankind: not only the standard of living but the good life, but (and the but is all important) in such a way that the potential of the biosphere to support this good life is not diminished.”

Well how true that is and how relevant to the present day. Let us remember and act on the phrase ‘the architects of guided change’.

Ben Vorlich and Loch Earn. ©Lorne Gill

Ben Vorlich and Loch Earn. ©Lorne Gill

Tropical forest management

Duncan moved back to the UK to become Professor of Forest Science and Director of the Commonwealth Forestry Institute at the University of Oxford. He served as Senior Research Fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IEED) where he set up its ‘Forestry and Land Use’ Programme from which he helped shape sustainable practices in tropical forest management and land use.

In later years, Duncan developed extensive consultancy experience for the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO), where he carried out the first survey of sustainable forest management in timber producing countries (1987), produced the first ITTO Action Plan, and undertook numerous missions to Sarawak (Malaysia) and Bolivia to promote sustainable forest management. He helped ITTO develop criteria and indicators for assessing progress towards sustainable forest management, and was a co-author of its Status of Tropical Forest Management reports in 2006 and 2011. Earthscan published Duncan’s book, Changing Landscapes (2003), which contributed significantly to the debate on the future of the forest landscape.

Duncan is survived by Judy (whom he married in 1949), two sons (Robin and Alasdair) and their families. Duncan and Judy settled in the Highlands, and enjoyed hosting working groups and discussions in the annex to their house. He chaired the Affric and Kintail Deer Management Group, and was active in other land management activities. Convivial, erudite and remarkably accomplished in scientific administration, Duncan’s life is emblematic of the polymath environmentalists who have done so much to fashion the wild landscapes we enjoy today.

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