Bird conservation's champion to retire

Forty years ago, he was a young PhD student researching the ecological genetics of land snails. But Prof Jeremy Greenwood is glad that his career path took him away from the biology of snails towards creatures of the feathered variety to become director of the UK's leading bird research organisation.

Forty years ago, he was a young PhD student researching the ecological genetics of land snails.

But Prof Jeremy Greenwood is glad that his career path took him away from the biology of snails towards creatures of the feathered variety to become director of the UK's leading bird research organisation.

Almost 20 years after taking up the job as head of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the 65-year-old can proudly say that he has made a difference to the nation's bird conservation efforts.

When Prof Greenwood retires in September, he will leave behind a scientific research trust that has almost doubled the numbers of its members and staff, and become a vital government resource over the last two decades.

The lifelong birdwatcher, who studied zoology at Oxford University and taught biological science at Dundee University, took over the reins at the BTO in 1988.

One of his first and most "traumatic" jobs was to find a new headquarters for the independent organisation, which had outgrown its Victorian accommodation in Tring, Hertfordshire.

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Fortunately for Norfolk, the owners of a 12th-century convent church, small manor house, and 160 acres of woodland, meadow and wetland habitat in Thetford, offered the BTO a perfect new base.

Since the not-for-profit trust moved to the Nunnery at Thetford in 1991, the number of staff has gone from 50 to almost 100 and its members from 8,000 to 13,000.

Prof Greenwood said it had been a "buzz" and a "dream" to watch over the unique and fruitful partnership between the BTO's scientists and its legion of 33,000 volunteer birdwatchers who "play a huge part" in researching the movements and breeding patterns of farmland, coastal, woodland, wetland and garden birds across the British Isles.

However, the administrator, who lives near Diss, said he was looking forward to getting out in the field again and becoming a more hands-on ornithologist.

"I am proud that we are playing a major role in how the countryside is managed. We have established ourselves as one of the major players in the conservation and science of ornithology in western Europe and our work is taken very seriously by the government.

"The thing that I shall be proudest about is that it was the BTO that discovered the widespread loss of farmland birds that occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. Our evidence caused the government to adopt a public service agreement with a target to reverse the decline of farmland birds by 2020," he said.

The decline of farmland species

such as the skylark, yellowhammer, corn bunting and turtle dove is now slowing as a result of the Thetford-based organisation's statistics.

Prof Greenwood added that Thetford had been a "good home" to the BTO over the years, but its headquarters would not be able to cope if its operation and staffing levels doubled again over the next 20 years.

"There will always be a demand for the BTO's conservation work, and the demand for science and knowledge will increase and the people interested in birds is still increasing.

"In terms of Thetford, we have spent a lot of money converting the Nunnery, and the new building we opened last year has provided us with space to increase staff, but if the BTO were to double like it has over the last 20 years, we will not be able to accommodate them," he said.

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