Professor Simon Thirgood: Ecologist and conservationist who worked extensively in Africa and upland Britain

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Simon Thirgood, an authority on wild deer and birds of prey, was one of Scotland's best-known conservationists. He was the author, with Stephen Redpath, of a landmark report on birds of prey and red grouse which proved that hen harriers can, under some circumstances, ruin the commercial value of a grouse moor. The debate had damaged relations between moorland owners and conservationists. Thirgood took a characteristically pragmatic and positive line by pioneering a way of resolving the conflict by providing alternative food for the harriers.

Thirgood worked at the Macaulay Institute near Aberdeen, the UK's leading research centre on land-use and the environment. He was a teacher and research ecologist with great experience of conservation biology in Africa and in upland Britain, and the author of more than 100 scientific papers on deer, mountain hares and moorland management, birds of prey and conservation problems in Africa, including the endangered Ethiopian wolf.

Beyond that he was both a natural leader and a generous collaborator who was always in demand. He was senior editor of the Journal of Applied Ecology and co-editor of an influential book, People and Wildlife: Conflict or Co-existence? (2005). Latterly he was seconded part-time to the Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability, in charge of an EU-funded project on sustainable hunting in Europe and Africa.

His contribution to ecological science, especially the training of PhD students, both in Scotland and Africa, was rewarded by an Honorary Professorship at the University of Glasgow. In all his work his guiding principle was the resolution of conflict through the application of sound and pragmatic scientific principles.

Simon Thirgood was born in Monrovia, Liberia where his father, Jack Thirgood, worked as a forester. Within a few years the family moved to Vancouver, Canada where Thirgood senior was made head of forestry at the University of British Columbia. Having grown up in Northumberland near the Scottish Border, and become convinced of the superiority of the Scottish educational system, his father insisted that Simon attend Aberdeen University. He graduated with a degree in zoology and went on to study for a PhD at Southampton University on the "Alternative Mating Strategies of Fallow Deer". After three years, he was said to be able to recognise every fallow buck in the nearby New Forest and call them by name.

Thirgood went on to work for a number of conservation organisations including the Cambridge-based Birdlife International, where his work on "Putting Biodiversity on the Map" proved valuable in the run-up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. He then returned to Scotland to work for the then Game Conservancy Trust, based at Langholm in Galloway, where he and his friend Stephen Redpath produced their well-known report on grouse moors, Birds of Prey and Red Grouse (1997).

While there he met his future wife, Karen Laurenson, a graduate veterinarian who was then working on tick-born disease in grouse. Both loved Africa, where Karen had gained her PhD on the behaviour and ecology of cheetahs. They managed to land a joint three-year assignment with the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and set off, with their two baby daughters, to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. There Simon was in charge of various projects promoting conservation within the framework of local sustainability and prosperity both there and in neighbouring countries. In the evening, at their home in the Park, they would sit on the patio and watch hyena drinking from a waterhole.

As their girls approached school age, Simon and Karen returned to Scotland, where the former was made head of ecology at the Macaulay Institute. While still an undergraduate, Simon had been a keen climber, and had shinned up some of the most challenging routes in the Cairngorms, including the formidable Djibangi and the Grey Slab. Much of his spare time in Scotland was spent with his family cycling, climbing, skiing and canoeing.

Thirgood's friend and mentor, Professor Ian Newton, described him as "an outstanding field ecologist, equally at home with birds and with mammals". He was an inspiring role model for ecologists at the start of their career who shared his energetic "get-up-and-go" spirit. He was a good, if sometimes caustic, judge of others' work, and was generous with help and advice. He was also highly articulate, often amusing, and deeply caring about wildlife, society, and, above all, his family and friends. He enjoyed the company of children, "playing the pied piper", as a friend expressed it, organising games and introducing them to the great outdoors.

Especially in his latter years, Thirgood was increasingly concerned by the need to foster better educational opportunities in the developing world. He saw the importance of integrating the social and natural sciences if the problems of growing population and shrinking wild places are to be met. He was in Ethiopia setting up a project funded by the UK Darwin Initiative when he was killed when a building collapsed during a storm.

Peter Marren

Simon Thirgood, ecologist and conservation biologist; born Monrovia, Liberia 6 December 1962; married 1996 Karen Laurenson (two daughters); died Ethiopia 30 August 2009.