Obituary: Nigel Holmes, ecologist.

Nigel Holmes: Pioneering conservationist and river ecologist whose work helped change attitudes
Share this article

Born: 16 November, 1949 in Surrey. Died 9 October, 2014 in Suffolk, aged 64

Nigel Holmes was a conservationist and river ecologist whose work over a four- decade period helped change attitudes at home and abroad about the importance and necessity of river restoration, and its impact within the wildlife community as well as man’s habitat; he also formulated a scientific classification which is now employed across Europe and co-founded the River Restoration Project, launched by the then Prime Minister, John Major, with the idea eventually going Europe-wide in 1999 when the European River Restoration Centre was formed.

With his wealth of knowledge and passion for waterways, which took him around the world and to the 122 river systems in England, Scotland and Wales, his everlastingly youthful exuberance and no-nonsense approach to bureaucracy, Holmes became a key figure and the “go-to man” on river restoration issues. Armed with archives of observation notes, recordings and photographs, he was at the forefront of efforts to restore degraded rivers to a more natural state, for the benefit of wildlife and to prevent flooding.

Holmes first came to the fore soon after completing his degree at Durham University in 1970. He embarked on a series of river studies, surveying the microscopic algae and bigger plants of the upstream stretches of the River Tyne, which was being done to help predict whether a scheme to transfer water from this river south to the River Tees was likely to have unwanted effects.

This successfully catalogued and classified, Holmes commenced his PhD project on the River Tweed which would prove both original and enlightening. This was the first survey of any British river which attempted to show the distribution of fully and partially submerged plants in both tributaries and the main river. With his excellent powers of observation and remarkably good visual memory, he painstakingly noted every flowering plant, moss and larger algae in each 0.5 kilometre stretch of the river.

Some stretches required caution because of ownership, but any worries that his supervisor might have had about getting access to some sites on the river dissipated the day Holmes placated an angry farmer about trespassing on a cattle field, by commenting on the splendid condition of his cows and then starting a lengthy discussion about how breeds differ in the best way to maintain them in good condition. Holmes and the farmer parted friends.

Funding these types of surveys was usually difficult but The Tweed Survey received financial backing from the then Tweed River Purification Board, thanks to the support of the director, Ian Currie, who maintained a very lively interest in the project.

After three years work on the River Tweed, Holmes remained at Durham University to work on the River Tees. This time the questions were both about how the river had changed over the previous 40 years and what impact the recently built Cow Green Reservoir (1971) was having on the plants.

Holmes believed the key to understanding a river were the plants, for “they have to endure whatever conditions nature and mankind bring, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year”. The flowers, grasses, mosses and algae help to define a river through their dependence on its water quality, its flow rate and the underlying rocks and soil. In turn, the wildlife of a river depends on its plants.

His tour de force, Rivers (2014), written with colleague and friend Paul Raven, was published two months before Holmes’ death; it is part of the British Wildlife Collection, a prerequisite for the serious conservationist and interested layman alike.

Born in Surrey in 1949 Nigel Trevor Henry Holmes was the son of an environmentalist father and farm owner; the family soon moved to North Devon where Holmes continued his interest in wildlife, before going to Durham to read Botany. While there he met his mentors, David Bellamy and the freshwater ecologist Brian Whitton.

Holmes was an excellent sportsman, playing cricket, squash, golf and rugby, successfully playing full back for the university. He also represented English Universities and Durham County and was considered an England prospect until a shoulder injury thwarted him.

While carrying out his surveys, Holmes used his rugby to take a quick look at rivers in other parts of the country, something which led to the boast that he had always managed to collect a sample of the brown alga heribaudiella on a submerged rock at every away match played for the university. This alga, which shows as little more than a small dark brown spot on rock, had previously been considered a great rarity in the British Isles.

Upon completion of his doctorate, Holmes joined the scientific team of the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) with the task of making a nationwide survey of rivers and so providing the council with a means of selecting the best examples as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Fortunately, Holmes was an exceptionally fit man and enjoyed wading in mid-stream, notebook and camera in hand, because this work took him over thousands of miles of river banks to collect many thousands of samples.

The fruits of his labour was published by the NCC in 1983 and illustrated that there were ten basic types of river in Britain, from fast-flowing mountain streams to sluggish, silt-laden waterways running through level flood-plains. He successfully developed a recording method known as Mean Trophic Rank (MTR) that used water plants as indicators of nutrient enrichment.

Holmes carried out a lot of work through hands-on training courses which, coupled with his good humour and enthusiasm, appealed to many, taking them out of the classroom and to the riverbanks. He was even able to illustrate to digger drivers exactly what to do and how to do it and to broker solutions to the often diverging claims of river engineering and wildlife improvement.

His first publication, Rivers and Wildlife Handbook (1984), revised and updated in 2001, was a huge success as it described tried-and-tested practical techniques of river management-restoration that integrated the requirements of flood defence, wildlife and other river interests. The update highlighted the revolution in the philosophy, understanding and techniques of river management.

When free, Holmes enjoyed sport and photography with the latter taking him to far-flung, remote locations in search of wildlife; he had recently returned from Baffin Island, Canada’s largest island.

Holmes died suddenly, just shy of his 65th birthday, doing what he enjoyed most, camera in hand, working by a riverbank with his faithful dog Bruno, busy with the restoration of a beautiful river in Suffolk.

He is survived by his wife Linda (née Winter), whom he married in 1977, having met while at Durham University, and his three sons.

More from News