Ecological Inspirations: Anthony Davy

Tony Davy e-mail.jpgAnthony Davy is Emeritus Professor of Ecology at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK. He has worked on varied aspects of physiological, population, community and conservation ecology but has taken a special interest in coastal systems and ecological restoration. Tony has published more than 100 scientific papers, including 26 in Journal of Ecology. He is currently Editor of the Biological Flora of the British Isles, and has previously served as Executive Editor of the Journal of Ecology and Honorary Meetings Secretary of the British Ecological Society (photo credit: Julia Cameron).

From wild flowers to ecology, there and back

Probably like many other people, my journey into ecology started with an early fascination for finding and identifying wild flowers. I suppose this inspiration is still the basis for the vicarious pleasure I get from editing the Biological Flora of the British Isles series in the Journal of Ecology. Early on, I had a stroke of luck in that I was in the first year-group to be offered biology as a single subject at my grammar (secondary) school and, after that, I confess that I never seriously considered any other kind of career. I rapidly realised that, beyond knowing where plants grew, understanding why (or how) they were there was much more satisfying.

This led me into a broadly-based degree in botany at University College London (whose former lecturers and professors had included ecological luminaries such as F.W. Oliver, Sir Arthur Tansley, Sir Edward Salisbury and W.H. Pearsall), where I developed the interests in physiology, genetics and evolution that have helped to underpin my subsequent ecological career. This was also when I discovered the British Ecological Society, whose collegiate companionship I have enjoyed in a succession of roles ever since.

Wishing as a first-year undergraduate to have my own copy of the Journal of Ecology, I wrote to the BES and asked to become a student member. This was readily granted, despite the fact that I had neither proposer nor seconder – normally required in those days. Ignoring advice from a tutor that ‘ecology is something you should come to in later in life when you have more experience’, I stayed on at UCL to do a plant-ecological PhD with Ken Taylor. Sadly, Ken died just last month but I will always be grateful for his early guidance. He instilled rigorous research values and standards, in his characteristically quiet, good-humoured (and sometimes wickedly funny) way.

Moving on seamlessly to a lectureship at the University of East Anglia in Norwich (possible in those days), I discovered two marvellous local environments that have featured crucially in my subsequent research: the first comprised the heaths and grasslands of the East Anglian Breckland, made famous by the seminal ecological studies of A.S. Watt; and second, the beautiful salt marshes and dunes of the North Norfolk coast, generally acknowledged as among the best in Europe and also featured in pioneering ecological studies by Oliver, Salisbury and, especially, V.J. Chapman. Actually, I was introduced to both habitats by Bob Jefferies, then a senior colleague at UEA. Although he moved to Toronto shortly afterwards, where he made outstanding contributions to the ecology of arctic salt marshes as the effects of climate change began to be of concern, his wise counsel, extraordinary energy and friendship were to be lasting influences until his untimely death in 2009. Bob had been the designated organiser of a forthcoming BES symposium, which we later entitled ‘Ecological Processes in Coastal Environments’. With his departure to Canada, I was invited to be the co-organiser and co-editor of the resulting volume, notwithstanding a complete lack of experience, when the President (the charismatic Dick Southwood) rebranded it as the First European Ecological Symposium. We had the excitement of inviting all of the European ecological societies extant at the time to contribute to the programme and of hosting their representatives (we were in favour of closer links with Europe in those days!). This was all a hugely formative experience and permanently cemented my relationship with coastal ecology. In turn, this brought me into contact with Derek Ranwell, one of the UK’s most distinguished coastal experts of his day. I owe to him my long-term involvement with applied ecological projects and to what has now become the important field of restoration ecology.

Now rather better-fledged, I became Honorary Meetings Secretary of the BES, in succession to John Lee, another regular source of much-valued advice. Organising the Annual Meetings, Symposia and Summer Excursions (happy days, some nightmares) for six years exposed me to a much greater diversity of ecology and interesting people than I could have hoped to experience otherwise.

One such summer meeting in south-west Spain opened the door to a long series of fascinating collaborations, on various aspects of saltmarsh ecology and halophyte physiology, with Enrique Figueroa and his extended group based at the University of Sevilla. These have continued to the present day. Back in the day, working on Annual Meetings with just the aid of a ‘BBC model B’ personal computer (don’t ask, that was then) and my long-suffering wife, Linda, I could not have imagined the professional, complex organisation the Society has evolved into today.

A few years of much-needed focus on my own research followed this, including some genuinely inspiring interactions with another distinguished UEA colleague, Godfrey Hewitt, working on plant phylogeography. However, more mind-broadening was on the horizon and so it was that I embarked on a protracted involvement with the Journal of Ecology– first as an Associate Editor, then for six years as Executive Editor, and latterly as Editor of the Biological Flora. This has also been a highly rewarding experience, with inspiring colleagues and friends so numerous that it would be invidious to single-out any for special mention.

In parallel with the BES activities, of course, I have always valued the freedom to develop the several different strands of my own work. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have more than 30 PhD students, from many and varied parts of the world, and working on a wide range of topics. It is a pleasure to admit that I have learned much and benefitted greatly from my interactions with them all; perhaps they have inspired me more than I have inspired them but most are still my friends!

Anthony Davy, Editor of the Biological Flora of the British Isles

Read more from the Ecological Inspirations series including: Deepak Barua, Crystal McMichael, Franciska De Vries, Richard Shefferson, Liesje Mommer & Yvonne Buckley.

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