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Hugh Boyd, Waterfowl research pioneer

Jane Austin

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Tribute to waterbird research pioneer

Hugh-Boyd-with-Greylag-Geese-Scotland-19Blog post by WWT Research Fellow Dr Eileen Rees; a tribute to Hugh Boyd who has sadly passed away, aged 91. Our thoughts are with his family.

With the recent death of Hugh Boyd, the world of wildfowl and wetland conservation has lost one of its true pioneers and a mentor to a generation of waterbird researchers from both sides of the Atlantic.

He was the first “Resident Biologist” at the Severn Wildfowl Trust (now WWT), moving to Slimbridge in 1949 to take forward the Trust’s scientific studies, where he initiated the national goose censuses (especially for Pink-footed and Greylag Geese), developed the Trust’s bird ringing programmes and worked with the late George Atkinson-Willes in helping to organise the newly-established National Wildfowl Count programme (now WeBS – the Wetland Bird Survey).

He became particularly involved in the study of migratory geese, with a keen interest in the factors affecting their populations, at a time little was known about their migration routes and arctic breeding habitats. In particular, he instigated the integration of population counts, age counts and ring recoveries for understanding the demographic reasons for population change.

Most of the ducks and geese were of quarry species, and Hugh quickly appreciated the importance of engaging with the hunting community for the return of leg-rings recovered from birds shot by wildfowlers, which could then be used to assess annual survival rates.

Hugh also introduced new techniques from North America (aerial surveys; age assessments) not previously used in Britain, which we now take for granted as being standard methods for population studies, yet were highly innovative at the time.

Though always modest and self-effacing, Hugh was a key member of the innovative team of scientists at Slimbridge during the 1950s and 1960s. From early in his career he was an eloquent, witty and very determined advocate for the importance of conservation being based on sound science, and was equally determined that research should be rigorous and published.

He himself published over 180 papers and three3 books during his lifetime and also edited WWT’s scientific journal “Wildfowl”.  At a very early stage he was aware of the applied value of research and of the contribution made by different methods available for studying goose populations. In one of his earlier papers, published in Ibis, he stated:

“Detailed knowledge of changes in the size and composition of goose populations is of importance in conservation. Long-term inventories of goose numbers have so far been made only in the United States of America. American and European studies of movement, and of survival, have chiefly depended on the recovery of ringed geese. It has slowly been realised that direct observations of goose flocks can provide much of the information needed to determine the age-structure of flocks, annual breeding success and mortality. Studies of goose populations employing all the available techniques are now being actively pursued in Britain as well as North America”
(Boyd 1959, Ibis 101: 441– 445).


Hugh Boyd imprinting ducklings at Slimbridge

In 1967, following two years with the Nature Conservancy (now Natural England), Hugh moved to Canada to join the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), initially as its Research Supervisor of Migratory Birds in Eastern and Arctic Canada, then serving as Director of Migratory Birds for CWS from 1975–1980.

The move provided him with access to the arctic breeding grounds of North American waterbird populations, which was rarely possible for those studying Eurasian migratory waterbirds breeding in the Russian arctic at the time of the Cold War. Here he played a key role in the Canadian Government joining the Ramsar Convention and for it listing 30 wetlands of international importance for protection under the Convention during the 1980s; he also used his position and influence to encourage other states of Central and Latin America to join the Convention.

Yet despite the increase in management and administrative work involved as Director, he maintained his research into waterfowl behaviour and ecology, including (in retirement, as Scientist Emeritus of CWS) exploring the influence of climate change on arctic breeding birds such as the Greenland White-fronted Goose.

Through living in the Scott’s house during his early years at Slimbridge Hugh Boyd became close to the family and remained in good contact with them and other friends at WWT throughout his life.

He was made Research Associate of WWT in 1992; was awarded the Peter Scott Medal for his “pursuit of scientific evidence and promotion of its use on policy-making on conservation on two continents”; and gained the Doris Huestis Speirs Award from the Society of Canadian Ornithologist for outstanding contributions to Canadian ornithology. He was also a Member of the Order of Canada. On retiring from the CWS, he continued to be actively involved in fieldwork and research, including publishing on the effects of climate change on goose populations well into the 21st century.

Hugh will be greatly missed not only by his wife Gillian and their family, but by his friends, colleagues and the many people that he inspired over his lifetime.

(Eileen Rees, with helpful advice and information from Tony Fox, Malcolm Ogilvie, Carl Mitchell and Mike Smart)


A lifetime dedicated to studying waterbird biology. Hugh Boyd 1925 – 2016

Posted on 22 July 2016 by WWT
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