Terry Wells: Botanist, ecologist and author

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is commonplace today to see flocks and herds of animals, and vegetation cut and mown, on nature reserves. It is hard to recollect that, some 50 years ago, the prevailing view was that nature should be left to look after itself. Management of such areas amounted to putting up a fence and reserve notices. But it was eventually observed that under such a regime of neglect, reserves lost their intrinsic wildlife-interest as grasslands became rank and woodland thicket.

Terry Wells was a pioneer in assessing how biological richness might be conserved, and in using farm stock and traditional farming techniques as nature-conservation tools. The reintroduction of such husbandry practices reversed losses and, incidentally, showed visitors and often-hostile neighbours that the reserves were being managed to practical effect. Nature-conservation bodies were not, as was often projected, absentee landowners.

Terence Charles Ernest Wells, who has died aged 73, was born in 1935 in Bedfordshire. He attended Luton Grammar School where his history teacher, John Dony, was a source of inspiration. Wells accompanied Dony on many of the field excursions which later formed the basis of Dony's Flora of Bedfordshire (1953). After studying Agricultural Botany at Reading University, Wells spent three years as an agronomist, devising trials with irrigation and chemical treatments of banana and sugar-cane plantations in Jamaica.

On his return to the UK in 1962, Wells was appointed grassland ecologist at the Nature Conservancy's new Monks Wood Experimental Station. Alongside extensive surveys of the calcareous grasslands of lowland England, he published biological floras of the Pasque flower Pulsatilla vulgaris and Spotted Cat's-ear Hypochoeris maculata. He wrote a large part of the Nature Conservation Review, at the time the most exhaustive inventory of wildlife resources in any country.

He was the first to undertake a scientific survey of Ministry of Defence ranges, highlighting, with the Nature Conservancy's regional staff in the early 1970s, the international significance of the ranges of the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down, an immense refuge for chalkland wildlife in an increasingly hostile agricultural environment. There followed a survey of the Lulworth-Tyneham ranges of the Dorset coast.

Close knowledge of the biology of the constituent species of long-established grassland habitats and painstaking research on the population dynamics of rare species provided Wells with the basis for further pioneering research into habitat restoration, namely the reversal of the destructive processes which had become so apparent by the 1980s. Commissions came from the Nature Conservancy Council and from highway and urban authorities, to develop seed-mixtures for establishing amenity grasslands on roadsides and within country parks. They led to both academic publications and practical guides. His booklet Creating Attractive Grasslands Using Native Plant Species (1981) sold 8,000 copies.

Wells's gathering and synthesis of field data, most obviously in his monit-oring of specific orchid populations, have provided long-term data sets of inestimable value. He spent 1982-83 as a visiting research scientist at CSIRO in Perth, Western Australia. A Churchill Fellowship enabled him to return to Australia in1988. His retirement from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology of the Natural Environment Research Council at Monks Wood, in 1995, was marked by an OBE for services to botany and conservation.

Wells never really retired, publishing his long-awaited The Flora of Huntingdonshire and the Soke of Peterborough in 2003. With his wife, Sheila, herself a very fine botanist, he continued to discover hitherto-overlooked wildlife sites, while making fresh discoveries upon those considered well- known. He was an active supporter of the Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire Naturalists' Trust and its successor body, his hands-on approach identifying and further realising its potential. He was also president of the Huntingdonshire Fauna and Flora Society.

Wells was a very effective writer and speaker, but it was in the field that he most excelled, as companion and guide. Quiet, with a great sense of humour, he was a modest and inspiring mentor for many field ecologists, and was held in great affection by both the scientific and local communities.

John Sheail

Terence Charles Ernest Wells, plant ecologist and nature conservationist: born Luton, Bedfordshire 18 May 1935; married 1959 Sheila Freezer (two daughters); died Huntingdon 4 September 2008.