Obituary: George Dunnet
Monday 25 September 1995
George Dunnet was a distinguished ecologist, an accomplished taxonomist, a gifted teacher and respected chairman of government committees, where he applied his deep understanding of ecology to practical and policy issues. But his most enduring achievement was the establishment of Culterty, the field station of Aberdeen University's Zoology Department, as a centre for postgraduate research and training in ecology.
The story of Culterty Field Station began in 1957 when the ownership of a fine granite house and its extensive grounds in the village of Newburgh passed to the university and the following year Professor Vero Wynne-Edwards appointed Dunnet to take charge of its development. Dunnet had gained First Class Honours in Zoology at Aberdeen in 1949, followed by a doctorate on the breeding of starlings in relation to their food supply. He then worked briefly at the Bureau of Animal Populations in Oxford and married Margaret (Mom) Thomson, also an Aberdeen graduate, whose steadfast support was to be one of his great strengths, before taking up a five-year appointment with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, in Australia.
On his return to a university lectureship, based at Culterty, Dunnet established research programmes on the birds breeding on the Ythan estuary, or using it as a migratory stopover, and on the fauna of the surrounding farmland. Residential field courses were established and a Master's course in Ecology. For the ensuing 30 years that George Dunnet was responsible for the field station, nearly 100 postgraduates, half of them from overseas, gained their higher degrees there; they continue to play a leading role in ecological science in Britain and abroad.
George and Mom Dunnet lived at Culterty House and provided the sense of community which forms many of the happiest memories of the staff and students who worked there. The Culterty spirit was fostered by biennial workshops, organised by younger staff and attracting postgraduates from other institutions to discuss their work, and take time off for memorable social occasions, generally involving the roasting of a pig. Over 500 scientific publications have resulted since the station's foundation. To celebrate George Dunnet's leadership of Culterty, a symposium was organised in 1993, attended by many of his former students who came from as far as New Zealand for the occasion. The resulting festschrift volume will be published soon.
While in Australia, Dunnet worked principally on the ecology of mammals, in Aberdeen principally on the ecology of birds. He continued work begun during his doctoral studies on fulmars on the Orkney Island of Eynhallow. This project still continues, and is one of the most important studies on lifetime reproductive success of a bird anywhere in the world.
In 1990, the British Ornithological Union presented Dunnet with the Godman Salvin Medal and, in the same year, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which he was a fellow for 20 years, awarded him the Neill Medal.
Although best known as an ornithologist, Dunnet published, while still an undergraduate, his first paper on the fleas of British mammals. While in Australia he collected specimens himself and arranged for others from all over Australia to be sent to Aberdeen, where he catalogued them. David Mardon joined him as a research assistant in 1969 and in 1974 a monograph on Australian fleas appeared. By this time Dunnet was head of the Zoology Department and could spend little time at the microscope. Mardon completed the task which added over 40 species and subspecies to the flea fauna of Australia.
Dunnet succeeded Wynne-Edwards as Regius Professor of Natural History at Aberdeen in 1974 and later served as Dean of Science. At the time of his death, he was retired but his advice on environmental issues was still highly valued by his university colleagues.
Dunnet took every opportunity to apply his knowledge and understanding of ecology to practical problems. He was one of the first to advise MPs in the Seventies that fish farming had the potential for causing environmental problems, and appreciated the need for dialogue between environmentalists and the oil industry. He established and chaired the Aberdeen University Environmental Liaison Group which, in 1977, evolved into the Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group (SOTEAG). Although his non- confrontational style gained the confidence of the oil industry, he would not shy away from difficult issues, but his strength was in finding a way forward which left those concerned with protecting the environment and those whose business it was to create wealth by extracting oil feeling that they could work together.
Dunnet's flair for providing balanced judgement led to his chairing the Review Team on Badgers and Bovine Tuberculosis, and the 1986 Dunnet Report which recommended that badgers should be trapped in situations where cattle were believed to have become infected rather than at their setts. This became known as the interim strategy and is still in use today (although not without controversy).
Recognition of his talents resulted in one of Dunnet's greatest challenges - the Salmon Advisory Committee, set up to advise ministers on the conservation and development of salmon fisheries, which he chaired from its inception in 1986 until his death. Under Dunnet's leadership it produced reports distinguished by their factual accuracy, readability and prescription for positive action.
Dunnet worked extensively on committees concerned with nature conservation, including the Advisory Committee on Science of the Nature Conservancy Council, which he chaired shortly before the NCC was replaced by the country agencies. This was a two-stage process in Scotland with the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland acting as an interim body before merging with the Countryside Commission for Scotland to become Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). This coincided with Dunnet's partial retirement from his university appointment, and he worked energetically in establishing these new bodies, as a member of NCCS, chairman of its Science, Research and Development Board, and later as a member of the main board of SNH and Chairman of its Research Board.
Dunnet felt that he had a special role as the only scientist on the Main Board of SNH but after becoming increasingly concerned that the voice of science was not heard, he resigned this year. It was a great disappointment to him, particularly as his scientific input elsewhere continued to be highly valued. At the time of his death he was in Copenhagen chairing an international panel of experts examining the environmental impact of the proposed bridge between Denmark and Sweden. He was also enthusiastically committed to an ODA Project advising the Azerbaijan Government on how to protect the Caspian Sea during the projected oil developments.
George Dunnet was always in the thick of any party and the sight of him in his kilt enthusiastically swinging his partner across the dance floor on Scottish winter evenings will remain an abiding memory. One of his favourite diversions was croquet, a game he played with passion and considerable skill.
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