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Obituary: J. Morton Boyd

GOING FOR a walk in the countryside or on the moors with J. Morton Boyd was an incredible and enriching experience. His powers of observation of nature were stupendous. Quite simply, he helped to educate us all. For 15 years - from 1971 to 1985 - he was Director of the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland.

Professor Fred Last, of the Institute of Ecology and Resource Management at Edinburgh University, describes him as "one of the leading advocates of the conservation movement for nearly half a century". Boyd was a major influence in the conservation of nature long before the cause was fashionable. He followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Sir Frank Fraser Darling. "Morton had the exceptional ability," says Last, "of being able to articulate his vision with passion from an incomparable base of knowledge and understanding. His name is linked with the natural history of Scotland, and in particular the Hebrides, but his impact is to be seen world-wide."

John Morton Boyd was born in the then textile town of Darvel in Ayrshire, in 1925. His father was a master builder and throughout his life Boyd displayed the practical skills of craftsmanship. On a visit to the National Railway Museum in York he would look under engines and amaze his colleagues with his knowledge of engineering. This is not wholly surprising since, after a rigorous education at Kilmarnock Academy under Scottish dominies, he went to Glasgow University matured by war service in the RAF as a flight lieutenant. His first intention was to read Engineering, which he did successfully in his first year.

However his reading of Frank Fraser Darling's seminal 1939 book A Naturalist on Rona - subtitled "essays of a biologist in isolation", on a Hebridean island - persuaded him to change from Engineering to Zoology. He came under the influence of that great marine scientist, the late Sir Maurice Yonge. Yonge told me shortly before he died that not only was Boyd one of his most outstanding pupils but that he had been impressed from the first term in which he studied Zoology with his drive and determination to help the natural world.

Boyd joined the Nature Conservancy after university. Magnus Magnusson, Chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage (as it became in Scotland), since 1992, says: "Morton Boyd played an important and charismatic role in the early days of the Nature Conservancy in Scotland.

"He was a hands-on practical scientist with all-consuming and infectious passion for the richness and diversity of Scotland's natural heritage, and an unquenchable curiosity about the beauty and intricacy of nature's workings all over the world. From his early days in the conservancy right through to the end of his directorship Morton Boyd gave the NCC a crusading edge based on morality and the highest values."

In his earlier years with the conservancy Boyd found time to lead many groups into the wildnesses of the Scottish west coast. Etched on the memory of all of us who took part were the commentaries which Morton Boyd delivered over the tannoy of the cruise-ship school Dunera during the National-Trust- sponsored cruises round the islands of St Kilda. His description of the bird life was wonderful and entrancing for its detail and his capacity to point out his own acute sightings to the passengers lining the deck with their binoculars. He had, with Kenneth Williamson, written St Kilda Summer (1960). All his career he had the closest association with the National Trust for Scotland, served on many of their committees and acted as a valued adviser gaining the complete confidence on the trust's rural concerns of the long-time Director, Sir Jamie Stormonth Darling.

He also was generous with his time to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, of which he was an honorary Fellow. The distinguished Director of Edinburgh Zoo, Roger Wheater, recalls the many car journeys in which he had driven Boyd to the Highlands. "Morton's knowledge of the Highland Wildlife Park [in the Cairngorms], of deer management, was juxtaposed to his expertise on the countryside. His service to the total environment was huge."

It was not only the wildlife of the British Isles which concerned him. In 1964-65 he was the Nuffield Travelling Fellow in the Middle East and East Africa, one of the first to raise concerns about the future of the Arabian oryx. In 1966 he led the British Zoological Expedition to Jordan, demonstrating to his colleagues not only formidable scientific knowledge but also sparkling leadership qualities. His humour (albeit he didn't suffer fools) could captivate scientists and nature lovers who were disposed to be difficult.

In 1967 he was a member, chosen by the late Sir Ashley Miles FRS, Biological Secretary of the Royal Society, of the Royal Society Expedition to Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean. His knowledge of and concern about the pink- footed booby, the flightless rail and above all the giant tortoises of the Indian Ocean were one of the spurs which drove me to conduct a relentless campaign in Parliament, as well as among friends at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington and the US Congress, to scupper the proposal which would have made Aldabra into an RAF staging post, supporting our then commitment east of Suez.

Had it not been for Boyd's briefing I have no doubt that, despite the efforts of David Stoddart and others, the staging-post plan would have been implemented, feral cats and rats - Boyd's greatest enemies in life - would have been introduced and the unique ecosystem would not have been preserved, as it is today.

In the late 1960s Boyd spent two years at the Azraq International Biological Station in Jordan, strongly supported by his devoted wife of half a century, Winifred. On return he was appointed as Director of the Scottish Nature Conservancy, which generously and imaginatively allowed him to work in the central Pacific - in the Solomon Islands, where he concerned himself with the problems of mining phosphates and their effect on the environment. In 1975 he went to Kinshasa, then in Zaire. Fifteen years later, when I led the parliamentary delegation to Zaire, their Minister of the Environment on being told that I was a Scottish MP asked if I knew Dr Morton Boyd. Such was the lasting nature of his influence.

In the decade of the late Seventies and early Eighties he devoted a lot of his time to work not only on seals but on the general problems of environmental protection in the northern seas and not least the Arctic, where he worked closely with the Russians.

One of Boyd's memorials is his written work - The Natural Environment of the Outer Hebrides (1979) and The Natural Environment of the Inner Hebrides (1983). In 1990 he produced The Hebrides: a natural tapestry and two years ago The Hebrides: a mosaic of islands.

The present chief executive of the Scottish Natural Heritage, Roger Croft, hails "the magnificent contribution" which Morton Boyd made to nature conservation in Scotland - "bringing greater scientific understanding of issues, demonstrating in practice what can be achieved, particularly in natural nature reserves, raising awareness of the natural heritage of the Hebrides, and most notably of all to many of us, communicating his knowledge and views with integrity, enthusiasm, and with great passion".

Morton Boyd will be remembered as one of the towering figures of nature conservation in the latter half of the 20th century.

John Morton Boyd, ecologist: born Darvel, Ayrshire 31 January 1925; FRSE 1968; Director, Nature Conservancy Council, Scotland 1971-85; FRZSScot 1985; FRSA 1985; FRSGS 1987; CBE 1987; married 1954 Winifred Rome (four sons); died Edinburgh 25 August 1998.