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I could have penned a rapid reply to your request for a description focusing on “the useful difference that BB's work made, in terms that readers could readily visualise”, but I thought it best to check that my thoughts matched those of Bob’s colleagues and friends. I received a lot of suggestions! Probably the most appropriate came from David his son who told me that he used to tell people who asked him what Bob did, to think about the figures for the length of hedgerows lost in Britain or area of heather moorland lost that they heard on the news - they were the statistics his dad had produced.
For the average Guardian reader, it is not that Bob simply recorded the vegetation and landscape features, but that he invented an approach, a global first. In a way similar to the way you classify the British people to effectively draw an opinion poll, Bob used the statistical methods he had developed for classifying plant groups to produce the ITE Land Classification. It divides Britain’s quarter of a million 1km x 1km squares into 32 land classes that share similar geology, climate and landscape morphology. Vegetation and landscape features were first surveyed in a distributed random sample from each land class in 1978. The squares were revisited (with more squares added) for the surveys of 1984, 1990, 2000 and 2008. The current survey is under way at present.
Hedgerows were a common theme in the suggestions from Bob’s colleagues that your readers would recognise. Initially, the report on the status and changes in the British landscape between 1978 and 1984 showed that 28,000 km of hedgerow were lost. The statistics showed a greater loss between 1984 and 1990 with 27,000 km being lost from arable landscapes alone with 42,000 km across the whole of Britain. The results, which had been sponsored by the Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions (DETR) lead to the Hedgerow Regulations Act 1997. With protection in place people may feel that hedgerows are old news, but as the surveys continue, hedges once again have a high profile being both Important for biodiversity and C storage within the farming landscape. Their importance has been recently recognised by the UK’s Climate Change Committee and stressed by conservation groups.
That first report also provided evidence of the loss of species-rich meadows, the increase of arable weeds, and the march of forestry across the hills. It was always important to Bob that his work should help drive conservation and highlight the gains and losses due to land management. In 1993, John Gummer (then Secretary of State for the Environment) on launching the report proposed that Countryside Surveys should accompany the population census every decade. At the launch of Countryside Survey 2000, Michael Meacher, the then minister for the Department of the Environment (DETR), emphasised the importance of the Surveys by saying “You can’t manage what you can’t measure”. Even under tight economic conditions the Government remain one of the sponsors of the Countryside Surveys.
Perhaps surprisingly, Bob was most proud of how his Classification had been used to target the rapid sampling of radioactive fallout in Britain following the Chernobyl accident in 1986. The uplands, where the highest deposition was recorded, were effectively represented; the resulting map, the first showing levels of CS-137 across Britain, was published exclusively by the Guardian. As a result of the speedy but comprehensive survey radioecologists could identify which flocks of sheep were likely to be contaminated and advise on the restrictions so reducing risks for the British public.
Of course, Bob was far more than just the founder of Britain’s Countryside Survey, he has expanded his approach to Europe; a methodology that is widely used by researchers including national monitoring networks in Sweden, Spain and Austria. In recognition he held chairs in Madrid, Vienna and Estonia and received the IUCN medal having been on their Commission on Environmental Sustainable Protection. Bob founded the UK chapter of the International Association for Landscape Ecology in 1992 and was its chair for many years and later he became president of the global association. During his time, Bob tutored, mentored and enthused countless students and regularly impressed the wider public leading walks. He is held in high esteem by landscape ecologists around the world and I feel your readers would recognise that his work has influenced conservation and land management in Britain.