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Bob Bunce obituary

Landscape ecologist who developed the Countryside Survey to monitor changes to Britain’s natural environment
Bob Bunce developed a statistical technique to sample Britain’s countryside that would allow him to draw conclusions at a national scale
Bob Bunce developed a statistical technique to sample Britain’s countryside that would allow him to draw conclusions at a national scale
Bob Bunce developed a statistical technique to sample Britain’s countryside that would allow him to draw conclusions at a national scale

News stories about change in the countryside often make their point by presenting stark totals – 28,000km of hedgerow lost in the six years from 1979, followed by even more (42,000km) lost between 1984 and 1990, for instance. These and other significant statistics for countryside change over the last half century resulted from the work of the research ecologist Bob Bunce, who developed Britain’s Countryside Survey. He has died at the age of 81.

Before 1978, when the first Countryside Survey took place, we had little idea of the makeup of the countryside and how it was changing. Bob was then on the staff of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE, part of the government’s Natural Environment Research Council), and accepted the challenge of finding a way to measure countryside change at the national scale, at a time before the luxury of being able to observe whole countries from space made some aspects of change easier to record.

He developed a statistical technique similar to an opinion poll to sample Britain’s countryside. For this purpose he divided Britain into 1km squares and then grouped them into 32 classes according to their geology, climate and landscape – called the ITE land classification.

In the first survey, Bob set about getting teams together to record vegetation and sample soils, and to map habitats and landscape features. By using a sample of squares from each of the land classes, he could then say something about the state of the countryside at a national scale.

The results proved so useful to both ecologists and government that further national surveys were commissioned and carried out in 1984, 1990, 2000 and 2008. The latest assessment is under way at present, sampling across several years, rather than one, as previously.

The importance of statistics describing the size and direction of changes in our countryside is now appreciated by the government. Launching the results of Countryside Survey 2000, Michael Meacher (then minister for the environment) justified the need for information as “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”.

The Countryside Survey has become a treasure chest of information that tells us about how our landscapes are changing and informs us about ecological responses to land use change. The survey’s 1990 hedgerow figures were so shocking – showing loss and mismanagement of hedgerow boundaries – that the Hedgerow Regulations Act 1997 was passed as a protective measure. Hedges retain a high profile, being important for biodiversity and carbon storage; the Countryside Survey is seen as vital for tracking how they are changing in farming landscapes.

Perhaps surprisingly, Bob was most proud of how his classification had been used to target the sampling of the radioactive contamination of Britain following the Chernobyl accident in April 1986. By collecting soil and vegetation from sites in each of the land classes, the survey highlighted that the uplands were the areas where the highest deposition had occurred.

Having a framework already in place enabled the survey to be done quickly, soon after the accident, and the resulting map, the first showing levels of the radioactive isotope caesium-137 across Britain, was published exclusively by the Guardian that July. The results ensured that restrictions could be put in place to reduce risk to people from contaminated meat from sheep that had grazed upland sites.

Bob’s approach was also expanded to Europe; his methodology is widely used by researchers including national monitoring networks in Sweden, Germany, Spain and Austria. In recognition he held chairs in Madrid, Vienna and Estonia, and in 1998 received the International Union for Conservation of Nature medal.

Bob founded the UK chapter of the International Association for Landscape Ecology in 1992, chaired it for many years, and served as president of the wider IALE (2003-07). He tutored, mentored and enthused countless students, as well as discussing issues in the local pub and regularly impressing the wider public when leading walks.

Bob was born in Dorchester. His father, Gerald, was an architect who was responsible for the rebuilding of St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol after the second world war. His mother, Doris (nee Jaggard), was a keen botanist and, while Bob was a schoolboy, they surveyed for the Botanical Society of Britain. He went to Wellington school in Somerset where he captained the school’s rugby and cricket teams.

From there he progressed to Bangor University, studying botany and leading the mountaineering club. His PhD was on the vegetation of the Black Ladder cliffs on Cader Idris in Snowdonia, combining those two passions.

On completing his doctorate, he joined the Nature Conservancy, the government research agency based at Merlewood in Grange-over-Sands. In 1973 the government split the NC into two parts, a research division, the ITE, and the executive section, the Nature Conservancy Council; Bob and Merlewood remained in research. ITE was part of the Natural Environment Research Council and later evolved into the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Having reached the British retirement age in 2000, Bob took a post at the Dutch research institute Alterra. Then, on passing the Dutch retirement age in 2011, he moved on to a chair in the Estonian University of Life Sciences, which he held until his death.

In 1965 he married Freda Brown. She and their son, David, survive him.

Robert Gerald Henry Bunce, landscape ecologist, born 21 October 1940; died 24 April 2022