Farewell to a Master – restoring ecosystems, and with high hopes for Arsenal!

Professor Tim Burt, Master of Hatfield College and Professor of Geography, Durham University, ‘retired’ on 31 August.  Two friends, Professors Alan Werritty and Des Thompson, reflect on some of Tim’s work and influence on ecosystem restoration and management, so important to our work on biodiversity.  But first, let’s get Arsenal out of the way!

Sadly, there is an erudite Professor who is so obsessed with the fortunes of Arsenal FC that the even hardened locals in Durham’s renowned Victoria Inn willingly part with shillings to buy him a succession of drinks to stop him talking. Formed on 1 December 1886 by munitions workers in SE London, ‘The Invincibles’, as Tim will tell you incessantly in his Somerset drawl, is the only team to have completed unbeaten a 38 match season in in the English Premier League (2003-04).  But get him off that topic, and onto soil erosion, land management and ecosystem restoration, and he is marvellously engaging – drawing on four decades of international field research!

Tim inspires as much through his influence on the environmental research and policy communities as on young minds eager to make the best of opportunities. As Master of Hatfield College since 1996, Tim led Durham’s second oldest college very much in the spirit of the Hatfield motto ‘Vel Primus, Vel Cum Primis’ (loosely translated as ‘Either the first or with the first’, or ‘Be the best you can be’).  Dean of Environmental Sustainability and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Colleges and Student Experience, in 2014 he led (with Professor of Music Philosophy,  Martyn Evans) the  UK’s first world collegiate universities conference.  Walking with him in Durham can be exhausting, as much for keeping up with his relentless, daily 10k paces routine as listening to the literally scores of students who buttonhole him for advice or a chat.

Studying first at St. John’s College, Cambridge, taking a Master’s at Carleton University, Ottawa (research on frozen soils), and a PhD (and later DSc) at Bristol University (research on hillslope hydrology) he has excelled  in teaching and research.  A Senior Lecturer at Huddersfield Polytechnic, in 1984 he moved to Oxford as a Lecturer in Physical Geography and Fellow of Keble College, before landing the post of Master of Hatfield College coupled with a personal chair in Durham in 1996.

His research focuses on catchment hydrology, water quality and climate history. Two of his books are well-worn textbooks: Riparian Zone Hydrology and Biogeochemistry; and The History of the Study of Landforms or the Development of Geomorphology Volume 4. In 2002 Tim led the production of the JNCC report The British Uplands: Dynamics of Change, with an exceptionally visionary, for its time, Preface by Professor Charles Gimingham.  His work is key to us understanding ecosystem sustainability – maintaining the functions and diversity of landscapes so that they can support wildlife and land uses enduringly.

A classic catchment in the Southern Uplands ideal for studying interactions between peat erosion, carbon budgets and water quality. ©P and A Macdonald

A classic catchment in the Southern Uplands ideal for studying interactions between peat erosion, carbon budgets and water quality. ©P and A Macdonald

Climate change is of course the emerging key driver of ecosystem dynamics. Working extensively on weather records from the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford (dating from 1767), and the Durham Observatory (from 1850), Tim has run the two longest-running university weather stations in the UK. These datasets are crucial in helping us understand the nature of change, and have underpinned some of Tim’s publications on historic trends in UK climate series.

Restoring degraded upland habitats has proved another key area of enquiry with numerous publications on the role of peat on the generation and quality of runoff from the Northern Pennines. Complemented by a career-long passion to unlock the pathways and impacts of nitrate-rich waters in lowland catchments, Tim’s research has constantly stressed the value of modelling informed by rigorous data capture from field-experiments.

Tim gauging the windrush.

Tim gauging the windrush.

Closely involved with the running of the Field Studies Council (the UK’s leading provider of outdoor environmental education), Tim was Chairman from 1996, became President in 2014, and currently edits its journal Field Studies. Elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2012, and awarded the David Linton Award this year by the British Society for Geomorphology, Tim is an exemplar of scholarly research applied to environmental sustainability.  Well-travelled, modest, encouraging and entertaining (even when discussing the virtues of The Invincibles), Tim is currently working with us on an overview of the importance of environmental field studies, to be published by CUP.

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