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David Hungerford Ashton (1927–2005)

by Linden Gillbank

As the forest-conscious author, Arundhati Roy, might have observed, in November 2005 a hole appeared in the universe in the shape of a remarkable ecologist – Dr. David Ashton. Perhaps arcanely guided by his own name, Dr. Ashton was the authority on the world’s tallest flowering tree, the mighty Mountain Ash, Eucalyptus regnans. His ecological interests spanned nearly six decades and numerous ecosystems. Forests loomed large in his ecological mind, including their community dynamics, nutrient cycling, epiphytes, soil mycorrhiza, pathogens, drought and fire.

David Ashton began studying at the University of Melbourne in 1946. In our conversations not long before he died, he still remembered his first-year botany excursion to forests in the Dandenong Ranges and his pleasure at being in Professor John Turner’s group. He also remembered his third-year ecology excursion to east Gippsland forests in 1948. David’s ecology lecturer, Dr. Reuben Patton, had a particular appreciation of forests. In the 1920s Patton had gained two forestry-underpinned qualifications – a Harvard masters degree in forestry and a Melbourne DSc degree for his thesis, ‘The factors controlling the distribution of trees in Victoria’, and seven published papers on trees and timber. With help from local foresters, Dr. Patton introduced David’s class to forests in the vicinity of Cann River. The class included two post-Creswick forestry students, Alfred Leslie and Alan Threader – names well-known in Victorian forestry circles.

The following year Professor Turner handed David an ecological puzzle for his postgraduate research project. Mosaics of fire-generated, even-aged stands of Mountain Ash did not seem to fit the current forest regeneration model, which originated in the northern hemisphere, where uneven-aged temperate forests were perpetuated by continuous regeneration in forest gaps. It was well-known that Australia’s Eucalyptus regnans regenerated vigorously after fire; but could it regenerate in forest gaps? Or was the dramatic episodic disturber, fire, essential for its regeneration?

Venerable stands of E. regnans - over two centuries old – towered above the understorey in Melbourne’s water catchment on the Great Dividing Range north of the thirsty city. David could describe this Big Ash forest in the Wallaby Creek catchment and investigate regeneration in these long-unburnt stands – a tall order indeed. In 1949, with help from the University of Melbourne’s new forestry lecturer, John Chinner, David began the difficult and arduous task of mapping the vegetation and soils of the Big Ash forest. Little did young David realise that this was the beginning of his half-century solo investigation of the majestic E. regnans and its forests.

Despite weather-, wombat- and leech-induced tribulations, David managed to reveal many details of the Mountain Ash’s life-story; and in 1957 was awarded a PhD degree for his thesis, ‘Studies on the autecology of Eucalyptus regnans F.v.M.’, which showed that it could apparently regenerate in a forest gap.

His investigations reveal the crucial importance of long-term studies, with decades, not years, being required for the elucidation of adequate ecological explanations. Had Dr. Ashton transferred his ecological attention away from the Big Ash forest in the mid-1950s, he would not have noticed the subsequent demise of the few saplings that had managed to grow from seedlings in a forest gap. Consequently he would not have been provoked to ask further questions and examine in more detail the biology and ecology of E. regnans in order to properly explain the intimate intricacies of its life and what Tom Griffiths has called its ‘Faustian bargain with fire’.

While continuing his own E. regnans research, Dr. Ashton interested generations of Melbourne University students in ecological processes in Victoria’s diverse ecosystems. From the 1960s he taught science and forestry undergraduates ecology, and supervised postgraduate ecological projects. His undergraduate ecology excursions and postgraduate research projects often focussed on forests or woodlands. His annual week-long ecology excursions included sub-alpine snow gum woodlands at Lake Mountain, a coastal warm temperate rainforest near Marlo in east Gippsland, and the cypress pine – white box woodland in the rain-shadowed part of the Snowy River valley near Suggan Buggan in eastern Victoria.

Ashton’s first postgraduate student, Malcolm Gill, studied forests near Wallaby Creek – messmate forests near Kinglake West - and gained a PhD degree for his thesis, ‘The ecology of mixed-species forests of Eucalyptus in central Victoria’. Ashton also supervised research projects on Messmate, Eucalyptus obliqua, and Lilly Pilly, Acmena smithii, communities on Wilsons Promontory, Nothofagus cunninghamii on Mt Donna Buang, and the intriguing outlier of Bull Mallee, Eucalyptus behriana, near Melton, not far from Melbourne. Snow gum and cypress pine woodland postgraduate projects were prompted by data collected during undergraduate ecology excursions. With funding from the Forests Commission of Victoria, Evan Chesterfield, a post-Creswick forester, described the botanically complex landscape of the catchment of the Macalister River in Gippsland for his MScF degree.

I suppose it is not surprising that eucalypt communities dominated Ashton’s ecological investigations – from Mountain Ash forests and snow gum woodlands to remnant eucalypt woodlands near Ocean Grove and on the Mornington Peninsula. Under Ashton’s supervision in the 1970s, Pauline Ladiges, now head of the Botany School, undertook a population study of Eucalyptus viminalis for her MSc degree and then further research for her PhD thesis, ‘Studies of population differentiation in Eucalyptus viminalis Labill. in relation to mineral nutrition and drought resistance’.

Retirement in 1989 did not stop his ecological work. In 1999, the first of three substantial papers on his half-century’s scientific scrutiny of Mountain Ash appeared in Australian Forestry - a paper written with John Chinner, ‘Problems of regeneration of the mature Eucalyptus regnans F. Muell., (The Big Ash) forest, in the absence of fire at Wallaby Creek, Victoria, Australia’.

In 1990 Dr. Ashton was awarded the prestigious Medal of the Ecological Society of Australia, and in 1999 he was doubly honoured. Rangers at the Kinglake National Park, which then included the Big Ash forest, organised a celebration for the forest ecologist’s research jubilee, and a beautiful bronze commemorative plaque was unveiled at Wallaby Creek. Since this is still part of Melbourne’s water catchment and therefore not accessible to the public, the plaque was erected by the Toorourrong Reservoir car park, in sight of the forests David Ashton knew so well. In 1999 the Victorian Department of Natural Resources and Environment established the David Ashton Biodiversity Award for departmental staff for scientific achievements which enhance the understanding, conservation or management of Victoria’s biodiversity. In 2001 he was awarded a medal of the Order of Australia for services to plant science, and in 2002 a University of Melbourne DSc degree for his published work.

As an artist, poet, pianist and composer as well as ecologist, David Ashton valued the beauty as well as the science of forests. He is outlived by forests which he and his students investigated; by his published papers, which provide foundations for informed conservation and management decisions; by the ideas and practices of his postgraduate students in CSIRO, national parks and forestry, universities and schools; and the David Ashton Biodiversity Award to encourage the conservation of Victoria’s biodiversity.

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Citation details

Linden Gillbank, 'Ashton, David Hungerford (1927–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

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