Obituary:Edgar Milne-Redhead

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The Independent Online
Edgar Milne-Redhead, the botanist and pioneer plant conservationist, was working on his project to re-establish the black poplar with characteristic enthusiasm up until a few days before his death.

For 20 years he researched records of the black poplar, now one of the rarest timber trees in the country, but once common along river valleys. Male and female flowers are borne on separate trees so that both sexes need to be present, the female downwind, and mud flats need to be exposed long enough for the seedlings to become established. These conditions are now rare. Milne-Redhead established a network of nurserymen to grow plants from cuttings and advertised them wherever he could. He recently persuaded a local council to put in a roundabout to preserve an isolated tree.

A love of plants was well established in Edgar Milne- Redhead's family. His grandfather, Richard Redhead, had established a fine garden at Holden Clough, near Clitheroe. His father, George Bertram, was also a keen gardener. Of his cousins, Humphrey became an expert on mosses and Richard set up an alpine garden nursery. In 1920 the family moved from Frome to Cheltenham, where Edgar went to the College as a day- boy, explored the countryside and helped to build up an interesting collection of plants in his father's garden.

In 1925 he went to Cambridge and read Natural Sciences, taking a particular interest in Botany and gaining a half-blue for rifle-shooting. Being bad at exams, he decided not to take Part II of the Tripos and applied instead for a post at Kew.

There was no immediate vacancy so in October 1928 he accepted an unpaid post for a few months, and was soon appointed a Temporary Technical Assistant, working successively on the plants of Europe, Canada and Fiji.

The turning point in his career came in March 1930 when Kew's Director, Sir Arthur Hill, offered to second him to the Colonial Office to assist with a scheme for an aerial survey of what is now Zambia. He was based in the Mwinilunga District for four and a half months, during which time he made a remarkable collection of plants, beautifully preserved and with meticulous field notes. He was then employed with the Empire Marketing Board and joined the official Kew staff when the Board closed down in 1935.

The following year he succeeded Dr John Hutchinson as Head of the Tropical African Section of the Herbarium, a position he held until 1959. In 1937 he returned to the farm of Captain and Mrs K.R. Paterson in Mwinilunga, an area rich in unusual, little known plants, and spent four and a half months collecting in the first half of the rainy season before he was frustratingly summoned back to Kew for no apparent reason.

On the mobilisation of the Air Defences in August 1939 Milne-Redhead, who had been commissioned in the Territorial Army in 1929 and served for 10 years with the 30th (Surrey) Searchlight Battalion, Royal Engineers, was called up. He became a gunner in August 1940, when the searchlight units were transferred to the Royal Artillery and in November was drafted to West Africa where he rose to the rank of Temporary Major, collecting a few plants along the way.

In early 1942 he was posted back to England to become a Sector Searchlight Control Officer, working with RAF Fighter Command on night interception of enemy raiders. This left plenty of daylight hours to explore the countryside around Dunstable and befriend notable local amateur naturalists such as John Dony. He helped set up the Bedfordshire Natural History Society and inspired two friends from this period, Peter Taylor and Bernard Verdcourt, to join him at Kew in later years.

After the war Milne-Redhead returned to Kew, becoming a Principal Scientific Officer in 1946 and building up the Tropical African Section of the Herbarium. He masterminded the Colonial Office programme to start a Flora of Tropical East Africa in 1949 and run a series of major expeditions to the region. He also set up a network of amateur collectors, who were cajoled to send in many thousands of plant specimens by his unflagging correspondence.

In 1949 he joined with Arthur Exell of the Natural History Museum and Professor Jean Leonard of Brussels to found the "Association pour L'Etude Taxonomique de la Flore d'Afrique tropicale" (AETFAT), which still flourishes as an informal forum for the exchange of ideas and initiatives between botanists interested in the region. Six years later he undertook a major expedition with Peter Taylor to the little known Songea District in the south-east corner of Tanzania. The eight months work resulted in over 5,000 impeccably prepared collections including many species new to science.

In 1959 Milne-Redhead was promoted to Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium and Editor of the Kew Bulletin, posts he held until his retirement in 1971. He wrote relatively few scientific papers, but in each prose and illustrations were honed to perfection. He did much further preparatory work annotating collections and accumulating artwork that was generously made available to his proteges. He revitalised the standards of the Kew Bulletin and was a stickler for detail.

As an administrator he was authoritarian in a military style and made short shrift of the disorder and pretensions of his more academic colleagues. He had a quick temper, but bore no grudges and made a point of friendly reassurance to miscreants at the next encounter. His integrity, hospitality, loyalty to Kew and support to his staff were legendary.

From his earliest days there he took part keenly in botanical forays with his colleagues. Kenneth Airy Shaw was one of these and introduced Milne-Redhead to his sister Olive; they were married in 1933. Between 1954 and 1960 Milne-Redhead participated actively in the mapping scheme that produced the Atlas of the British Flora in 1962. He was a leading campaigner in 1964-67 on the Teesdale Appeal Committee, led by the Botanical Society of the British Isles (he was its oldest living member, having joined in 1929), to save Cow Green from flooding as a reservoir, and founded the Cypripedium Com-mittee to look after Britain's sole remaining lady's slipper orchid and organise the annual scrub clearance to preserve orchids on the Goring scarp.

He was in the vanguard of the British conservation movement, as an Associate of the Royal Society for Nature Conservation (now the Wildlife Trust) from 1948, and a founder member of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. He was on the Standing Committee of "The Countryside in 1970", the third of a series of conferences championed by the Duke of Edinburgh to assess land use and environmental responsibilities. Edward Heath attended and the Department of the Environment was set up shortly afterwards.

His last campaign at Kew was to persuade the new Director, Professor Heslop-Harrison, to set up a Conservation Unit in 1972. This enabled Kew to participate in the First Meeting of the Parties of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Washington in 1973 and was the seed for the major role that Kew now has in world conservation.

His particular contribution was to advocate a scientific approach to conservation, exemplifed by his early work on the small Badgeworth Nature Reserve in Gloucestershire, set up to preserve Ranunculus ophio-glossifolius. He noticed that the rare buttercup was coming up best where people trod and so recommended letting cattle back into the pasture to disturb the ground.

In his retirement Edgar Milne-Redhead worked assiduously for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust (as he had for the Surrey Wildlife Trust while at Kew), and gained much pleasure from his campaign for the replant- ing of the black poplar.

Roger Polhill

Edgar Milne-Redhead, botanist and plant conservationist: born Frome, Somerset 24 May 1906; MBE 1996; married 1933 Olive Shaw (one daughter); died Colchester 29 June 1996.