Ian Mercer, the first Dartmoor National Park Officer and the first chief executive of the Countryside Council for Wales, has died aged 83. He has been a great influence in national parks and countryside policy, upland farming and natural history for the last 50+ years.
I wrote this obituary which was published, with a few amendments, in The Times on 24 September.
Ian Mercer: elder statesman of the national park movement who could identify every song in a dawn chorus.
‘The British Isles are divided by a line running from the Tees to the Exe. To the right they grow wheat and beans, to the left mist and sheep.’ So geographer and naturalist Ian Mercer would tell geography students. He was able to communicate his love of the natural world with clarity and enthusiasm. He was a great man, in every sense, from his physical form to his personality, intellect and influence.
It was as such a student himself, in 1952 at Birmingham University, that Mercer, a Black Country boy, first visited Dartmoor and was intrigued by its rock formations. After stints with the Field Studies Council in Shropshire and Surrey he was to return to Devon seven years later with his first wife Valerie to run the council’s new Slapton Ley centre on Start Bay. In those unregulated days their visitors experienced freedom and adventure, a tonic after the gloom and struggle of the post-war years. Mercer taught them about landscapes and habitats, and to identify everything that lived there.
Succession of firsts
After Slapton, Mercer’s career continued as a succession of firsts: county conservation officer for Devon (1971-3), chief officer of the Dartmoor National Park (1973-90); chief executive of the Countryside Council for Wales (1990-95) and secretary general of the Association of National Park Authorities (1996-2001). He loved all his jobs and said that he was the happiest man he knew.
At Dartmoor he was the first of the new generation of national park officers created under the Local Government Act 1972. He was soon regarded by his colleagues as a leader, with his intelligence, innovation, and ability to resolve problems. In those days the national parks were beholden to their county councils for money. Mercer persuaded Devon County Council to fund the park’s vital legal representation at public inquiries—even when the two were on opposite sides. For decades Dartmoor had been a hotbed of conflicting needs, views and personalities. Mercer would listen, understand, and remain on speaking terms with everyone. He brought changes to the stodgy, annual national park conferences, turning them into workshops focusing on the big issues facing the park family.
These were the early days of management planning and agreements between park authorities and farmers to protect landscapes, when there was public money for such things. Mercer took delight in paying a farmer’s son to maintain old granite walls; he learnt that curves are quicker to build than corners—which is why Dartmoor walls have so many bends.
His greatest triumph was the ground-breaking Dartmoor Commons Act 1985; private legislation which set up a governing commoners’ council while giving the public the right to walk and ride the commons. This guided subsequent national legislation on commons and public access. Mercer was held in such esteem by the commoners that they invited him to chair the commoners’ council in 2004, a post he retained until 2013.
The foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 had a devastating effect on Devon’s economy, and Devon County Council asked Mercer to chair a public inquiry into the handling and aftermath of the disease. His report concluded that the government’s handling of the crisis was ‘lamentable’, and gave comfort to the hundreds of Devon farming families whose lives had been torn asunder.
Mercer deplored the schism between nature and landscape conservation caused by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 which created separate bodies to oversee these disciplines. It was therefore appropriate that he should be appointed in 1990 as chief executive of the newly-formed Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) which, for the first time in Great Britain, brought nature, landscape and recreation together—though it cannot have been a foregone conclusion that a panel of Welsh people would appoint an Englishman. Mercer invented Tir Cymen (roughly translated as ‘a well-crafted landscape’). This paid farmers for positive management of their land to benefit wildlife, landscape, archaeology and geology—and provide public access; it continues today as the Glastir (farm management) scheme. Despite the attempts of Welsh secretary John Redwood to destroy CCW, Mercer enjoyed his time in Wales, dubbing his native country ‘our powerful eastern neighbour’.
Back in Moretonhampstead, Devon, when his five-year Welsh contract ended, Mercer became Secretary General of the Association of National Park Authorities. By now the elder statesman of the national park movement Mercer would speak with passion and force to authority members (many of whom were appointed by councils), who promoted local interests at the expense of national. Relishing a hostile audience, he explained the role of park members, with persuasion and humour to excellent effect.
Mercer collected offices: he was president of the Field Studies Council and the Devon Wildlife Trust for decades, chairman of the South West Uplands Federation, vice-president of the Campaign for National Parks and convenor of the elite Symonds Club to name a few. He was made a CBE for ‘services to the environment in Wales’, an honorary professor of rural conservation practice at the University of Wales and a Fellow of the Royal Agricultural Society.
He is survived by his youngest brother Nicholas (an architect), three of his four sons—Jonathan who has Down’s Syndrome, Tom an aquatic ecologist and Dan, a builder; the fourth, Ben, died in 1997—his wife Pamela to whom he was married for 40 years, stepdaughter Julia, a linguist, stepson James, an educational consultant, six grandchildren and four step granddaughters.
Mercer wrote the second edition of the New Naturalist’s Dartmoor, a 400-page, scholarly work. In the introduction he said: ‘Despite spending three-quarters of my working life as a rural public servant … I have always been a geographer.’ His enthusiasm for landscape and wildlife, and his ability to identify every song in a dawn chorus, have inspired thousands—and England and Wales have benefited from that rural public servant’s work, undertaken with vision, integrity, humour and a love of his job.
Ian Mercer CBE, conservationist and naturalist, was born on 25 January 1933. He died of cancer on 20 September 2016, aged 83.
You can listen to the tribute on Radio 4 Last Word on 21 October, or download podcast, here, 21 minutes in to programme.