Obituary: John Ardagh Forster

John Ardagh Forster, committed conservationist whose love for Feughside earned him 'local hero' status. Picture: Contributed
John Ardagh Forster, committed conservationist whose love for Feughside earned him 'local hero' status. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 3 September, 1942, in Worcester. Died: 9 July, 2014, 1aged 71.

John Forster died very suddenly on 9 July, aged 71. He served for many years in the Nature Conservancy/Nature Conservancy Council (NC/NCC) as deputy regional officer for north-east Scotland, based initially at Banchory, where NCC conservation and research staff shared accommodation, and subsequently at Aberdeen.

Though he came from Surrey and was educated at Sherborne School and Wadham College, Oxford, almost all of John’s professional career was spent in north-east Scotland, beginning in 1969 in what was at first the Nature Conservancy, later renamed as the Nature Conservancy Council.

He served NC/NCC North-east Scotland first as assistant regional officer and then as deputy to Mr E M Matthew, in charge of up to five assistants.

The area covered by this team, together with wardens on the major reserves, included Speyside, Deeside, Kincardine, Gordon, Buchan, Orkney and Shetland. John oversaw most of the conservation agenda including facilitating much greater protection for Sites of Special Scientific Interest under the new Wildlife and Countryside Act, and the setting up and management of natural nature reserves, notably the native pinewood at Glen Tanar and the mosaic of woodland, heath and loch at the Muir of Dinnet.

This was a big task for such a small number of conservation staff, now greatly strengthened within the new Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland.

John was particularly good at managing conferences and other group events. He played a leading part in the Native Pinewood Discussion Group and the subsequent symposium at Aviemore in 1975.

He organised a big conference at Braemar in 1980 which brought 70 delegates together from farming, forestry, tourism and other rural backgrounds to establish the principles of the World Conservation Strategy as they applied to Grampian region.

It is never easy to say how successful such initiatives were but events like that helped to make the North-east more conservation-conscious – something it certainly wasn’t when John first came to Aberdeen.

Given the chance, John loved to get stuck in. Many ramblers and naturalists remember the public inquiry over the future of the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms when the ski company wanted to expand its cabins and towns into Lurcher’s Gully – adjacent to the Cairngorms SSSI.

John was an absolute dynamo, marshalling the opposition, which included walkers and international scientists as well as high-powered legal opinion, and making its defence as 
professionally watertight as possible.

He made the other side look amateurish by comparison and, of course, the conservationists won, though that was far from a foregone conclusion.

John was a people person. He was amiable, thoughtful, helpful, gentlemanly and thoroughly likeable.

More than most conservationists he could see the other chap’s point of view. One of his early jobs was to try save Buchan’s best surviving peat bogs, a difficult habitat to “sell” at the best of times.

One owner, an old Buchan farmer, had plans for his bog. He wanted to sell the peat, rent out the resulting crater as land-fill and finally plant conifers on top. Not much room for compromise there. Many might have found the man selfish and greedy, but John didn’t. He understood the kind of hard life that man had had, and now saw the chance, perhaps for the first time, of making a little money. Not that John wasn’t committed heart and soul to nature conservation. He was, and continued to be so, long after he left the NCC, partly through his consultancy, John Forster Associates.

He was on his way to a meeting on free trade in Aberdeen when he died. For him, conservation wasn’t so much a science as an abiding principle, an equitable means of sharing and saving the earth’s wild resources.

Like several of his colleagues, John was obliged, in 1985, to “cash in” his promotion ticket supposedly for the good of his career, a step that would have entailed a move to another part of Scotland. But he and his family did not want to leave the North-east and, rather than do so, he resigned and took up a new role as careers advisor at Aberdeen University.

At the same time he took on a very active part in his local 
community, helping to found and develop the Finzean Community Association over many years.

Projects in which John was much concerned included rebuilding the village hall, partly financed by the National Lottery, obtaining whose grant entailed a great deal of paperwork, and constructing a new community graveyard in which he sadly 
became one of the first to be buried.

John was also instrumental in establishing the Finzean Community Council, which he chaired for a while.

Latterly, he developed a thoughtful interest in theology and, together with the local minister, organised a reading group to meet regularly to discuss new books on different aspects of religion. That the local community adopted as its own someone who grew up in southern England says a lot about John. He loved the place and helped to develop its community spirit.

Back in the early 1970s, the Forsters had bought and rebuilt an ancient farmhouse half way up the Feughside glen. This was to become the focus of many parties and social events. There were usually a lot of animals there too: horses, dogs, cats, poultry and quite a lot of wildlife, including two or three species of bats, interesting warblers and the Feugh’s famous wild salmon.

John was thrilled to find otters feasting on sea trout spawning in a wee burn running past his home and locally scarce brown hares breeding in his meadow.

The Forsters’ hospitality was legendary. Many friends have fond memories of sitting round the great log fire, skinny-dipping in the Feugh, country dancing at Hogmanay or playing games such as sardines with the children, in which John would do his best to maintain his dignity while wedged inside some cupboard. His face said: “I may be here but I am thinking higher thoughts.”

Everyone who left the North-east conservancy was sorry to do so. John decided he wasn’t going to leave his beloved Feughside, and he added conservation of people to his love of wildlife. He contributed so much, both to nature conservation and to his community that he is entitled to the name of “local hero”.

The 250-odd people who turned up for John’s funeral at Birse and Feughside Church clearly thought so, and our hearts go out to his widow, Sandra, and their much loved daughter Emma.

PETER MARREN

DAVID JENKINS