Franklyn Perring

Co-author of the 'Atlas of the British Flora'
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The Independent Online

Franklyn Hugh Perring, botanist and conservationist: born London 1 August 1927; Senior Worker, then Director, Maps Scheme, Botanical Society of the British Isles 1954-64, President 1993-95; Director, Biological Records Centre, Monks Wood Experimental Station 1964-78; Secretary, Linnean Society 1973-78; General Secretary, Royal Society for Nature Conservation 1979-87; OBE 1988; chairman, Wildlife Travel 1988-2002; married 1951 Yvonne Matthews (one son; marriage dissolved 1972), 1972 Margaret Barrow (one daughter); died Cambridge 11 October 2003.

Franklyn Perring was the author, with Max Walters, of the Atlas of the British Flora (1962), hailed by some as the most significant natural-history book of the 20th century.

He pioneered the now familiar dot maps based on a grid of 10- kilometre squares, and was from 1979 until 1987 head of the Royal Society for Nature Conservation (now known as the Wildlife Trusts), the main voluntary body for nature conservation in Britain, at a time when nature conservation was becoming a national priority. He was also one of the best field botanists around, with a seemingly bottomless memory for plants, and, though professionally qualified, retained all his days the zest of the amateur.

Perring was born in 1927 in Forest Gate, east London, and grew up at Woodford Green in Essex, on the edge of Epping Forest, and, with the encouragement of his uncle Stanley, a biology teacher, became interested in natural history. He was educated at Earls Colne Grammar School, where he boarded, and elected to do his National Service before entering university. After service in the Army in Ireland, India and Malaya, he went up to Queens' College, Cambridge, where he read Natural Sciences.

Under the influence of Max Walters, then Director of the University Herbarium, Perring studied for a PhD in the ecology and biogeography of plants of the chalk. At Walters's invitation, he joined the ambitious project to map the distribution of all the wild flowers, trees and ferns of Britain and Ireland begun by the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) as "Senior Worker". In organising and leading field parties to under-recorded parts of Britain, Perring was in his element. He also did his share of "square-bashing" close to home, taking off on his bicycle to record the flora around Cambridge, work which he later put to good use in A Flora of Cambridgeshire (1964), written with Walters and two other colleagues.

Perring, who took over as project director in 1959, was also responsible for the then technologically advanced - but by modern standards, immensely slow and cumbersome - machinery that turned field records into dot maps with the help of printed punch-cards. The Atlas of the British Flora reproduced the maps at four per page and with a minimum of text. Despite these austerities and its price of five guineas, the Atlas sold out within months and was reprinted. A Critical Supplement on difficult plants such as brambles, hawkweeds and eyebrights, edited by Perring and Peter Sell, followed in 1968.

In 1964, Perring moved to Monks Wood Field Station in Huntingdonshire to become Director of the new Biological Records Centre. There, with the stimulus of able, conservation-minded colleagues, he extended the mapping scheme to other groups of animals and plants as a tool for wildlife planning and monitoring. He also encouraged the establishment of county-based record centres.

Detailed mapping revealed the precarious survival of many species. With his colleague Lynne Farrell, in 1977 Perring produced the first British Red Data Book, on vascular plants (flowering plants and ferns), and predicted that, without urgent conservation work, 14 species were likely to become extinct in the near future. Their work was used to support the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Plants Act in 1975, which protected 21 of the rarest wild flowers for the first time.

The book revealed the dearth of knowledge of many plants, and helped to stimulate more research and survey. Perring himself led parties to record rare species, and edited stimulating conference reports on the changing flora of Britain, the plants and animals associated with oak trees and on changing attitudes to nature conservation. He was himself an expert on mistletoe, burdocks and comfreys, among other plants.

At the age of 51, Perring crossed the line from recording to conservation affairs, accepting the post of General Secretary of the RSNC (the Royal Society for Nature Conservation), the umbrella body for some 46 autonomous local wildlife trusts. He was already well acquainted with this world, having helped to found one trust (Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely) and as president of another in his home county of Northamptonshire.

His eight-and-a-half-year stint at the head of the trusts included the launch of the magazine Natural World, a successful appeal to raise £15m for wildlife projects and the growth of a network of Urban Wildlife Groups. During that time, some 500 nature reserves were set up, and the trusts' membership went up from 129,000 to 165,000.

A close colleague remembers Perring as a driven leader, impatient of red tape - "He wanted to get things done. If he sees a goal he will head straight for it, oblivious of the fact that he is cutting across more circuitous official pathways." He was a scattergun of ideas, "some good, others wildly impractical". But, although discussions were often heated, Perring knew when to surrender with grace as well as drive through an idea. He was invariably as good-humoured at the end of a meeting as at the start. On being appointed OBE in 1988 for services to nature conservation, he claimed, characteristically, that it must stand for OBsessive Enthusiasm.

Perring was an excellent speaker, much in demand for the trusts' winter calendars and on radio natural history programmes. Concerned that the traditional field skills seemed to be in decline, he ran courses on plant identification for the Field Studies Council. For the same reasons, he led a BSBI initiative to educate teenagers and young graduates into the joys of field botany.

He also set up, in 1988, with Anne Cryer, the company Wildlife Travel, offering expert-led holidays in search of flowers and other wildlife. Greece and the Mediterranean islands were favourite destinations, but the tours also included South Africa and Australia. Part of the profits was donated to the Wildlife Trusts.

Perring had wide interests. He was practised at bell-ringing, and he and his wife Margaret were regular church-goers. They transformed the local churchyard into a flower meadow, and raised funds at a series of "Medieval Faires" in Oundle in Cambridgeshire to purchase two local wildlife sites as nature reserves.

He was fond of music, especially chamber music and opera, and took part in a local poetry reading group. He liked puns, and his conversation was often peppered with them. He was also unusually fond of frogs, to judge by the large amount of plaster froggery he kept about the house and even, at one stage, on the bonnet of his car.

Peter Marren