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Tribute to Professor Geoffrey Matthews, OBE

Prof Geoffrey Matthews, OBE

It is with great sadness that the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust has learned of the passing of Professor Geoffrey Matthews at the age of 89, a pioneer of waterbird and wetland conservation, internationally renowned as one of the founding fathers of the Ramsar Convention, and for many years Director of Research at WWT.

Geoffrey was educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and following the Second World War, (during which he served with the Royal Air Force in the Indian Ocean) he returned to Cambridge and received his PhD in 1950.

He remained at Cambridge thereafter, pursuing his research into migratory bird navigation, including his classical studies of orientation in pigeons and shearwaters. In additional to numerous scientific papers, he was author of the seminal monograph Bird Navigation published by Cambridge University Press in 1955, with a second edition in 1968.

In 1955, Prof Matthews became Director of Research at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, a post to which he dedicated the next 32 years of his life.

On arrival at the Trust, as well as leading the research effort in many areas, especially in animal behaviour, he immediately became involved in the conservation field. This was at a time when wetland conservation, and conservation in general, was not very effective, and when coordinated national and international effort was badly needed to conserve wildfowl populations and the wetlands on which they depend.

Geoffrey thus led the team of scientists working with Sir Peter Scott which made huge progress in developing knowledge of waterfowl biology from the 1950s onwards. The academic reputation of the Trust was further enhanced by Geoffrey’s associations with the universities at Bristol and Cardiff, where he was a Special Lecturer and Honorary Professorial Fellow respectively.

Geoffrey receiving the RSPB medal from Magnus Magnusson

He became Honorary Director of what was then called IWRB (the International Wildfowl Research Bureau, now Wetlands International) and worked with wildfowling groups to establish a network of refuges to safeguard migratory wildfowl at key wintering sites for the species across Britain.

As well as working to protect habitat, Geoffrey played a very influential role in shaping legislation and advising governmental departments in their implementation. Most important of these was the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which gave statutory protection to Sites of Special Scientific Interest. It protected the Greenland White-fronted Geese, Curlew and Redshank for the first time, and made many of the practices involving bird study and exploitation subject to strict licensing.

Through his efforts in these fields Geoffrey firmly established the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust as a responsible and scientifically-based conservation organisation.

Geoffrey devoted a good part of his career to developing and promoting the concept of an intergovernmental convention on the conservation and wise use of wetland habitats and resources. Between 1962 and 1970 he took part in lengthy negotiations to devise an international convention. Finally, at an international meeting in the Caspian seaside resort of Ramsar in Iran, at which Geoffrey served as Rapporteur-General, the text of the Ramsar Convention was agreed on 2 February 1971 and signed by the delegates of 18 nations the next day.

Celebrating a successful Bewick's Swan catch at WWT Slimbridge with Russian scientist Prof Vladimir Flint

Today the Ramsar Convention has 164 member states, 2071 Wetlands of Internatonal Importance, and designated sites covering nearly 200 million hectares, and Geoffrey is considered one of the Founding Fathers.

For nearly two decades thereafter, Geoffrey remained closely involved with the growth and mission of the Ramsar Convention, being an active participant both in the meetings of the Conference of the Parties through to Regina in 1987 and in the early meetings of the Standing Committee through to 1988, the year of his retirement.

Following his retirement he wrote the definitive “The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands: its History and Development”, which was published by the Ramsar Bureau in 1993 and has recently been re-released (electronically) in his honour by the Ramsar Convention Secretariat.

He continued to maintain an active interest in waterbird research and conservation long after that, including attending as Patron the ‘Waterbirds around the World’ conference in Edinburgh in April 2004.

Geoffrey was awarded the OBE in 1986, and in 1987 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the Golden Ark – a prestigious Dutch award – for his services to conservation. The tribute that perhaps gave Geoffrey the greatest pleasure, however, was the naming in his honour of a hitherto undiscovered feather louse – Ornithobius matthewsi.

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  • Trevor Williamson

    A sad loss. One of the real beginners in bird & habitat conservation. I used to hear his contributions on BBC radio Natural History programmes (was it things like Nature Parliament & possibly “Look” on the tele hosted by Peter Scott? A beginner in this genre.

  • mowarren

    A wonderful, dedicated leader in waterbird conservation who truly set the foundation of all the passionate work carried on to this day at WWT. Although I joined the Wildfowl Trust as a young member just a few years after Geoffrey became Director of Conservation, I never had the pleasure of meeting him as, in those days, there was not much opportunity to mingle with the Management!
    He was a hard act to follow but it is part of the ethic of WWT to attract the best people to work together for the good of waterfowl – so his legacy continues.