Obituary: Dr Richard Balharry MBE, conservationist

Dr Richard Balharry MBE: Conservationist who had a passion for promoting Scotland's natural heritage
Dr Richard Balharry MBE: Conservationist who had a passion for promoting Scotland's natural heritage
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Born: 3 September, 1937, in Muirhhead of Liff, Dundee. Died: 22 April, 2015, in Newtonmore, aged 77

Just days ago Dick Balharry was honoured with a prestigious award amid the glorious surroundings of Glen Feshie, deep in the Cairngorms National Park. The setting was the diametric opposite to the road he might have travelled when he was first considering a career.

As a teenager he had trained to work in the engineering trade but on turning up for his first day’s graft in an engineering plant he immediately realised that the factory environment, with its noise, pungent mix of hot oil and cigarette smoke, was not where his future lay. “I was gone within the hour,” he said.

It was perhaps not a surprising decision for a youngster who had grown up roaming free in the countryside around his Angus home, hunting and hand-rearing wild animals and curating his own collections. The din and grime of the factory were completely alien to the boy who was fascinated by the natural heritage of the woods, marshes and fields surrounding his village.

After that instant decision to ditch engineering he quickly went on to follow his heart, working among the natural environment, and with some of Scotland’s most iconic species, for more than 50 years, ultimately becoming one of the country’s most respected and influential guardians of the land.

The son of a builder, he grew up on the outskirts of Dundee spending his boyhood in total freedom, exploring the countryside, enjoying mini-adventures and discovering how wildlife, from rabbits to kestrels, jackdaws and jays, really lived.

In a recent paper, outlining his vision for land use, he explained : “I soon realised that the natural world presented more questions than answers, not to mention that my activities also provided me with a healthy diet and a fast pair of legs.”

After completing a year at Dundee Engineering Trades College, followed by the lightning recognition that engineering was “off the agenda”, he took a job as a gamekeeper on an estate near Tighnabruaich. He was to control predators and patrol the river to fend off salmon poachers but it turned out that his pet fox and raven were not compatible with the landlord’s view of a gamekeeper. After an ultimatum he left – along with his pets – and became a deerstalker in Glen Lyon.

By 1959 he had joined the Red Deer Commission as a stalker working all across Scotland and, through his job culling deer and marking calves, had begun to become interested in the signs, tracks, dens and eyries of other species such as wildcats, peregrines, eagles and martens.

Then he moved into the field of conservation when he was appointed warden on Beinn Eighe in Wester Ross in 1962, the UK’s first National Nature Reserve.

Aged just 24, he was given responsibility for more than 10,000 acres of mountain and Caledonian pinewood. It was a role that introduced him to what he described as “the establishment” and the realisation that he had limited influence on decision-makers in Edinburgh and London.

“Tactful advocacy, persuasion, passion and promoting public support became the tools of my trade,” he recalled.

Determination also played a huge part in his achievements: on one occasion he refused to accept the diktat that travelling abroad to enhance his knowledge was not the preserve of mere wardens and broke the mould to attend a course on the Administration of National Parks. He was among a global array of delegates and visited most of the National Parks in America’s Midwest.

That visit, he said, was a turning point in his life and the catalyst for his mission to drive change and promote Scotland’s natural heritage to a wider audience, whichever way he could. Since then he had devoted his life to boosting his own knowledge and to enthusing others, engaging with everyone from shepherds to top civil servants, hill walkers to royalty.

He used the media to get his message across effectively, appearing on various radio and television programmes, and through his numerous papers, publications and books which included Beinn Eighe, The Mountain above the Wood, the first 50 years of Britain’s first National Nature Reserve, which he co-authored.

Balharry, who was also involved in the management of Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve, was made an MBE in 1996 for services to conservation. He later became chairman of the John Muir Trust and was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science by Abertay University.

He had also been chairman, president and latterly honorary vice president of Ramblers Scotland and was a long-standing council member of the National Trust for Scotland and its interim chairman in 2009-10.

He particularly loved the archipelago of St Kilda, said the Trust, “Not just for its stories of human drama and tragedy, but for the unique insect, plant, animal and marine life which, with his naturalist’s eye he knew had much to teach us about habitats and the effects of climate change.”

Sir Ken Calman, who succeeded him as NTS chairman, said: “We will never forget his boundless enthusiasm, friendliness and his deep love of Scotland’s natural treasures. He was feisty and forthright to the very end and we will do what we can to honour his legacy as we strive to protect this country’s unsurpassable wild lands.”

On 18 April, just four days before he died of cancer, he was awarded the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s Patrick Geddes Medal, presented in Glen Feshie, an estate he held up as a example for the future, praising the vision of its landowner and the way it is successfully managed.

Balharry, who was described by RSGS chief executive Mike Robinson as a warm and generous character and a relentless and passionate advocate for improving and protecting Scotland’s natural landscapes, opted to share the award with his wife Adeline.

He is survived by her, children David and Dawn and grandsons Ross and Ryan.