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Island life

Updated Tuesday, 16th November 2010

The Saving Species team join Malcolm Ogilvie on the island of Islay off the west coast of Scotland to discuss his career as a British ornithologist, and his area of expertise - wildfowl

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Copyright The Open University


Malcolm:  I’m Malcolm Ogilvie.  I’ve been living on Islay for the last twenty-five years, but the twenty-five years before that I was a research scientist at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge.  

Presenter:  And we’re standing here on a viewing platform at Loch Gruinart on the Island of Islay, the west coast of Scotland.  Looking out over a scene that in a way I think summarises your passion as much as anything and your life over that period.  First of all, describe the scene that we’re looking at?

Malcolm:  We’re looking at some very flat farmland, which interestingly was reclaimed from the sea about a hundred and seventy years ago, and is a series of large flat fields.  Some of which are flooded, most of it’s a RSPB reserve, and they’ve done a lot of management here since they arrived in the early 1980s.  But essentially it’s the home during the winter of very large numbers of wintering geese; barnacle geese and Greenland white-fronted geese, both of which breed in Greenland and spend their winter on the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland.

Presenter:  And both of which are now regarded very much as a conservation success story?

Malcolm:  Very much so, numbers have increased very substantially.  When I was first coming here in the early Sixties there were no more than 8,000 barnacle geese, and now there are 35-45,000 wintering here.  There were no more than 3,000 white-fronts.  They went up a few years ago to as many as 13,000, but have actually dropped back a little to about 7,000.

Presenter:  Now a lot of that relates to the sort of work that you and people like you have been doing about the populations of these geese and their conservation needs.  So let’s scroll right back to the very beginning, how did you get interested in birds first of all and was it always geese for you?

Malcolm:  No, it certainly wasn’t always geese.  At the age of 12, my parents moved from the middle of a town out into the country, real country, a house surrounded by fields, a sizeable pond, almost a lake, a third of an acre in the garden.  This was in Essex, and I became interested because my mother was interested.  She was a farmer’s daughter.  The first thing she got my father to do in the new house was put up a bird table, and started pointing out the birds to me, and it just gripped me.  And for a young teenage boy I think they sort of thought well will he carry on or will this stop.  But they bought me a cheap pair of binoculars.  I’ve still got them somewhere, [unclear] 8x30s, pre-War.  And they bought me the first bird book, which I think was The Observers Book of Birds.  But most importantly they discovered that there was the Essex Bird Watching Society, and signed me up as a junior member, and that was a wonderful schooling ground.  Because the Bird Watching Society did excursions to different places, mostly on the Essex coast, which is fantastic for birds, and also the big reservoirs of Abberton and Hanningfield which was developed in the Fifties.

And so a coach would leave from the nearest town, and I would get picked up by one of the senior members, taken out on these excursions, and several of them they were school teachers, they had endless patience.  And us youngsters, and there were a number of us, were obviously asking endless questions, but these birdwatchers were saying that’s a so and so because, and then explain why it was what it was, why it was a pintail or why that song identified a white throat and so on.  And I’m sure it’s absolutely no coincidence that there were four of us all roughly the same age in the Essex Bird Watching Society in the Fifties who all went on to be professionals, and in those days the number of professional jobs for birdwatchers were very, very few.  But there was Bob Hudson at the BTO, there was Mike Everett the RSPB and there was Nick Picozzi who ended up in the, what was NERC and is now the Centre of Hydrology & Ecology.

Presenter:  Gosh, that’s an amazing roll call of sort of superstars of ornithology, it’s extraordinary.

Malcolm:  And myself I got a job at the Wildfowl Trust as an assistant in the very small research unit; there were half a dozen of us.  At that time the organisation had been founded by Peter Scott in 1945-46.  Right at the beginning he said I want research to go on, and employed the first researcher, a man called Hugh Boyd, still alive in his 80s and one of my mentors.  And then he was successful in getting a grant from the then Nature Conservancy, to provide the money for people to organise censuses of ducks and geese.  The original wildfowl counts, now the WeBS scheme, started at Slimbridge in the Fifties.  My colleague, Hugh Boyd, started finding out how you could count geese across Britain and set about doing it.  With the help always, as with so many bird surveys in Britain, with the help of lots and lots of amateurs who are prepared to devote their time to helping you.

Presenter:  There’s one question I’ve got to ask before we come back to that, and that is how come you got driven into the research side rather than becoming a fanatical birder?  Because there’s a lot of fanatical birders around that can tell one species from another at, you know, half a mile, but don’t necessarily become the research scientists?

Malcolm:  That’s a very good question, because I’ve never been what’s called a ‘twitcher’.  Even here on Islay and somebody rings up and says there’s this exciting new bird to be seen, I may well go and look at it, but it won't be the first thing on my mind, and I certainly don’t travel vast distances to look at rare birds and never have.  I think I have to blame, if that’s the right word, my biology master at school because it was a school where you were streamed after O Levels, and I went into the biology sixth, and studied biology and then at university.  And it wasn’t just birds.  I’m keen on botany, I have a moth trap and trap moths at home in the garden.  And just generally I’m interested in all aspects of nature.  Although, having worked professionally for twenty-five years with wildfowl, I obviously think I probably know more about them than other species.  And geese can become a passion, and they’ve remained a passion.  I have never tired of the sight and sound of thousands of geese, doesn’t matter what species or where I am, and I’ve seen them across much of the Northern Hemisphere.  But here on Islay, I can satisfy that passion at almost no effort every winter.

Presenter:  We jumped a long way ahead in the story there.  Just going back again for a minute to that question I asked earlier, it’s sort of as if the question you were asking when you were in the Essex Bird Club wasn’t so much what is that, as why is that?  Is that right or am I getting that wrong?

Malcolm:  I think that that’s how it ended up, but in fact we were being told why by these very good schoolteacher birdwatchers, as so many of them were, and so they were carrying on teaching us whether consciously or not.  But equally they were so receptive to questions, if you said well what’s the difference between male and female, you would get it explained to you.  And in those days, and it’s looking back a long way, the field guides were only just coming into play. Everybody had the three volumes of Coward which were produced in the Twenties and Thirties.  There was the Observers Book, there was the Pocket Book of British Birds by Sanders, which I’ve still got somewhere.  But Peterson’s Field Guide didn’t appear until what, 1952, I think, or ‘54 perhaps, ‘54.  So you’re only just beginning to have a book you could carry around with you that had some decent pictures in.  And even then Peterson had very few juvenile plumages in.  The modern field guides give you wonderful illustrations of allsorts of different plumages you’re likely to encounter.  Ducks in ‘eclipse’ plumage, for example, when they’re moulting, you won’t find that in many of the earlier bird books.  And so youngsters at that time needed more help than just carrying around a book, and we were very fortunate in Essex to get that.

Presenter:  I still, sorry, I’m still going on about this because I still think there’s two questions you can ask.  One is: what is that in that field and the second question is why is it in that field?  And it sounds to me like you were at least partly motivated by why is it in that field?

Malcolm:  I had curiosity, and the majority of small boys I think are curious and ask lots of questions.  Mine were well focussed, I was lucky in being among a group of people who were prepared to educate me and to realise that I was gradually becoming more interested, more knowledgeable.  I moved into bird ringing at much the same time, because one of the leading people in Essex was Bob Spencer, who went on to become the Ringing Officer for the British Trust Ornithology and was there right until he retired.  And we were running a small trapping station on the coast at Bradwell in Essex, and I used to cycle there, about twenty-five miles from home - fortunately Essex is nice and flat but there’s always wind - and spend a weekend with him and other senior people, learning about birds in the hand, learning about migration, collecting books, reading avidly.  All part of a learning process.  It could have been anything, it happened to be birds.

Presenter:  So you went and you worked for the Wildfowl Trust on the research side, and pretty quickly some of the things that you were learning there must have started ringing alarm bells for the future?

Malcolm:  We were at a situation where the birds we were counting were doing okay, many of them, but populations appeared to be slowly increasing.  But what Britain lacked at that time was a network of reserves.  There were some, the Nature Conservancy had some flagship reserves, like Caerlaverock, which started in 1954 and a sprinkling of others.  But birds were under incredible pressure, shooting was a common sport.  But it could be done almost anywhere, where you could get permission.  And there were no refuges for the birds or very few.  And one of the things that the Nature Conservancy did through the Sixties and into the Seventies was to build up a picture of where, not just birds but all wildlife needed protection.

And it was brought to a conclusion with the publication of the two volumes by Derek Radcliffe in the late 1970s and the Nature Conservation Review.  And the Wildfowl Trust in particular a colleague and myself covered the wildfowl side of this.  And that meant reviewing all our data, all the counts we’d gathered, looking at it species by species, population by population, geographical area by geographical area.  And recommending sites to become SSSIs, and then as many of them having future to become reserves, either national nature reserves, local reserves, RSPB reserves.  And so we played a considerable part in the situation we have now, we’re standing in the middle of a 4,000 hectare wildfowl and wetland reserve of fantastic quality.  And we knew down at Slimbridge that this was a good place, but it had no protection at all except from the landowner.

Presenter:  This place here on Islay?

Malcolm:  This place here on Islay, and one of the things we did was not only designate Loch Gruinart itself, the tidal lock, recommended as a SSSI for designation, but we said for a goose area, you’ve got to protect some of the feeding grounds too, and so we drew our line on the map to include all the land you can see here as part of the SSSI and refuge.

Presenter:  And that was sort of part of the change in thinking that led the Wildfowl Trust to become the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, because you can’t protect the wildfowl without the wetlands?

Malcolm:  Absolutely, the change of name was totally in recognition of that.

Presenter:  What brought you here?  I mean clearly this is an important place, I can understand why you’re passionate about it, but why did that passion drive you to actually move onto an island with all the problems of island life?

Malcolm:  And benefits.  The first visit here in 1961 as assistant to this guy Hugh Boyd - I still have a notebook somewhere with my observation was dated October 1961, partly because I never throw anything away - and I was coming here every Autumn to count the geese.  There were no birdwatchers living on the island, a visiting birdwatcher such as myself could count the geese on the island within a couple of days quite easily, there weren’t that many.  You could get around the island; you learnt where they were and do your counts.  And then my colleague Hugh Boyd emigrated to Canada and worked at the Canadian Wildlife Service and I found myself in charge of all the goose research and finding out how many there are and how well they’re breeding.

And so I started coming here, with the increase in numbers through the Sixties, not just once a winter but twice and then three times.  So I was coming regularly in October, November, January and again in March, getting, building up a picture of what was happening, talking to the farmers, talking to the landowners, talking to the factors, and just gradually just getting to know the island well, bringing my wife, then my small children here on holiday, getting to know the place as somewhere, well yes we perhaps could live here, it would be quite fun.  Gloucestershire was lovely; we had a nice house there.  An island with a lot of geese and a lot of other things too, breeding birds of prey, breeding butterflies and dragonflies, lots of wonderful wildflowers.

It all became very attractive.  And in the mid-Eighties, talking to somebody here who had started up a natural history trust, Jane Dawson, in memory of her husband, Rodney, who had died tragically young in his 30s from cancer.  And she wanted to do something in his memory and set up this natural history trust.  And she wanted a centre that would be for displays and perhaps accommodation for visiting naturalists.  And we got chatting, and she said I need somebody to run it, and I can find a little bit of money would you be interested?  And so long hard thoughts, talks to the wife, discussions as to how we could manage it, looking at how else I could earn a living, because I would be leaving my salaried job at Slimbridge, I would have to do other things, other consultancy work and this sort of thing.  So we took the plunge, and I was in my 40s, and it’s not a bad time to retire from a job and start being self employed.  And there we are, it’s 24½ years ago and I haven’t regretted it at all.

Presenter:  You stopped being employed, but you didn’t stop the research?  You continued doing the work here, the counting here out of your own enthusiasm primarily?

Malcolm:  Well the Wildfowl Trust said if you’re going to live on Islay you might as well carry on counting the geese there; it’s cheaper than sending somebody to do it from Slimbridge.  The Scottish Government at that time, it was the Scottish Office, were interested in the interactions between barnacle geese and farming and so I did some observations on that for them.  And then Scottish National Heritage came along in 1992 and they took over the goose counts.  The Nature Conservancy Council had been organising more detailed censuses than I could do because the numbers had increased quite heavily.  And SNH have carried on monitoring the geese here, and they do so by employing a small number of goose counters for six days a month to count the geese across the island, and I’m one of those.  And so I have been counting geese continually on the island for very nearly fifty years.

Presenter:  And over that fifty years, amazing changes in the number of geese that you’ve been counting, as you’ve hinted?

Malcolm:  Huge changes.

Presenter:  Does that encourage you?

Malcolm:  Yes, mostly, because if you’re dealing with a population of birds, which when I first came here the total number of Greenland barnacle geese was 14,000; the total number of Greenland white-fronted geese in the world was 15,000.  The fact that those populations are now 60-70,000 barnacles and 25,000 white-fronts has to be satisfactory.  These are small numbers when you think of the millions that exist, or hundreds of thousands that exist of so many other birds, including wildfowl.

Presenter:  And you migrated up to Islay as I said to be closer to the geese.  Have you also been tempted up to Greenland to see the other end of the lives of these geese?

Malcolm:  I’ve been to East Greenland once to look at the barnacle geese. Several years ago we were rounding up the birds when they were flightless in their moult and catching and ringing them.  I’ve been to the Arctic mostly to Spitsbergen, which is where there are more barnacle geese, the ones that winter on the Solway on the reserve that the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust have there.  And that’s what took me to Spitsbergen first, a couple of expeditions in the Sixties and Seventies.  I’ve since been back several times acting as a guide on a tourist ship. It’s a glorious place.  It’s much, much more accessible than Greenland and so that’s where one goes.

Presenter:  And I also had been there and walking around the …[unclear] with barnacle geese and their chicks is a remarkable luxury to be able to do.  It must be quite consoling to be up there, see that and think that these geese are going to be coming down to Scotland, even if not to your part of Scotland and to the Solway Firth.

Malcolm:  Well, not any more, but it still gives one a thrill when you’ve marked some birds on their breeding ground, and you wait for them to arrive on their wintering grounds the following Autumn and say I remember you, and we caught you there with all your friends and relatives, and here you are made this migration safely, you’ve brought some young.  And then you go on seeing them year after year.

Presenter:  So it was an extraordinary development in your career, to some extent being around at the right place at the right time it occurs to me.  Do you get the feeling it’s as easy for students today as it, not that it was easy for you but that the opportunities are there that you had?

Malcolm:  In some ways, yes, because there are far more ornithological and biological research centres and organisations than there used to be.  And equally there are some very good courses at universities on ornithology, on ecology particularly, which just didn’t exist in those days.  On the other hand, the competition for jobs is immense.  The RSPB employ several hundred people, I don’t know the exact number, and in fact it’s well over a thousand.  And they advertise a job for a warden on a reserve and get tens and tens of applications for these jobs.  SNH when it advertises a job as an area officer for which they want a scientist, a qualified scientist, preferably with a few years of experience, they could have forty or fifty applications.  It is a tough world out there.  And if you like when I first applied for the Wildfowl & Wetlands job back in 1960, they had I think eight or ten applications.  And so yes I had an easier time, I hope it proved that what I had to offer was acceptable to them.

Presenter:  And is there any advice that you would give to somebody then that wanted to give themselves the best opportunity when it comes to some of these tough competitive markets for jobs?

Malcolm:  Get practical experience.  Get hands-on experience in the field.  If it’s your interest to look at ecology of birds and animals, then go out there and look at it.  Find an organisation that will take you on as a volunteer or for a pittance, if necessary, just so that you can say on your CV that I’ve done this, I’ve done that, I haven’t just got a degree, I haven’t just done a degree thesis, I’ve been out there and done some practical work, and this is the way to get ahead.

Presenter:  Looking back, what would you say was your proudest achievement out of all these things that you’ve done?

Malcolm:  Goodness!  I think probably having the knowledge available through all these surveys at Slimbridge to be able to contribute a detailed list of all the Wetlands in Britain that we felt should have some degree of protection, and then to see it happen.

A small flock of Barnacle Geese in flight at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust Reserve at Caerlaverock in South West Scotland, UK Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Thomas Langlands |

Barnacle Geese






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