Rich Hearn. A tribute.

Last week we lost Rich Hearn. We lost a valued colleague. We lost his outstanding skills in monitoring, research and action planning for water birds. And we lost a voice for policy change to save wetlands across the world. We will miss his friendship, his humour, his adventures, his antics, his passion for birding and his unfailing energy to share his time, knowledge and skills with anyone who needed it.

Rich spent most of his working life at WWT. Joining as a student in 1993, his first role was to run a breeding bird survey at the Cotswold Water Park. Always one for adventure, he was quick to seize a new opportunity, and joined a WWT-sponsored expedition to Argentina in search for the elusive Brazilian Merganser. This expedition ignited a passion for finding, counting, studying and saving waterbirds – a passion that shaped his career.

By 1995, Rich, as a WWT ringing assistant, spent his time co-ordinating WWT’s waterbird monitoring activities, and went on to lead the UK’s goose and swan monitoring programme. His work put him in touch with the entire UK team of volunteer bird ringers and counters. It’s almost impossible to find a bird organisation or ringing group today that doesn’t know Rich, or that haven’t benefitted at some point from his encyclopaedic knowledge.

Rich went on to lead species action and recovery planning work for many declining water birds, including Baer’s pochard and European sea ducks. Globally, he helped build capacity for waterbird monitoring in the African-Eurasian and East Asian flyways. His work took him on multiple adventures, travelling widely from Iceland and Russia to China, Botswana, Bangladesh, Kuwait, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Again, that characteristic desire to share his knowledge led him to numerous conferences and organisations seeking Rich’s help with developing their waterbird monitoring and conservation skills.

From 2019, Rich used those international contacts to drive policy change that will help protect wetlands and wetland wildlife. To do this he worked with colleagues from Ramsar, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) and the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA).

While all of us at WWT mourn the loss of a dear colleague and friend, we also celebrate a life that achieved so much. A working life committed to monitoring and studying waterbirds, but always with that wider vision and passion for protection and conservation. A life dedicated to sharing knowledge and skills with others, which is reflected in the many messages of condolences we have received from conservation organisations across the world. Rich has left a small piece of himself in every one of those people he inspired and helped, and it is in the conservation work that they continue to deliver that Rich’s true legacy lies.

Our thoughts are with Rich’s family, his close friends and colleagues, and with every holder of that legacy.

Further tributes

"Richard Hearn made outstanding contributions to the conservation of Baer's Pochard in China and the survey of waterbirds in the Yangtze River. He has visited China many times, not only to participate in field trips, but also to help organise meetings, promote projects, and to make conservation awareness visits to primary schools and communities. The current achievements of China's Baer's Pochard conservation efforts are inseparable from his energy, enthusiasm and dedication. We are very grateful to him! Now that the population and conservation status of Baer's Pochard have improved, we have lost this good friend and excellent colleague. It is truly sad and heartbreaking."

Professor Ding Changqing, Beijing Forestry University (Chair of the Baer's Pochard Task Force).

“The desperately sad news came when I was at the Convention on Migratory Species meeting last week. There seemed no end to the sheer number of people whose lives Rich has touched from all corners of the of the world and every level of seniority. He was clearly held in such high esteem by so very many. His charming, easy personality, and his generous giving of his expertise without show or ego, made him one of the greatest waterbird conservationists I have had the privilege of knowing.”

Ruth Cromie OBE, WWT Research Fellow

“When I started at WWT in 2008 I was based in London, but often stayed with Rich in Stroud. He was incredibly open and friendly from the very start, full of fun but at the same time totally committed to his birds, and the conservation world. Our last trip together, to the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement technical committee, was last March. Rich made the trip by train to Bonn and contributed immense technical expertise at the meeting. He was so respected by colleagues from across the flyway and was just getting into his new role as Policy and Advocacy Manger (international). Rich was both a colleague and dear friend, a valued member of the ‘Stroud’ gang, a complete one-off. We will miss him hugely.”

Chris Rostron, International Engagement Manager, WWT

“The conservation world has lost another giant.”


“From 2010, I was lucky enough to work for Rich as a research assistant. He was so generous with his encouragement and support, training me up to take over his early work as he took on more and more responsibility for WWT. I am now at a point in my career where I've got a team of my own and trying to emulate with them the same level of inspiration that Rich instilled in me. His passion for all things birds, waterbirds in particular, and their monitoring, status and conservation was second to none, and his enthusiasm was infectious. I certainly caught it from him.”

Kane Brides, Senior Research Officer, WWT

“It’s difficult to fit in decades of knowing Rich – there are so many stories. Rich has been a great colleague and a fantastic friend. Great fun and so well loved by my own and so many other families. He always retained a sense of humour in work situations but was delightfully mischievous away from work. He always made me smile and you never quite knew what he was up to and was full of surprises. He was always himself.

I had the pleasure of travelling with Rich on trips to the Scilly Isles, Spurn, and many other UK migration hotspots all of which we had great fun on. Our last new bird species together was at Flamborough Head in late October 2023 (we await its acceptance on the British list), a Red-headed Bunting. It was a very special day of visible migration on the ‘Great White Cape’.

Having been through the best, and the worst, of times with Rich, I can say that he just got better with age, he was a good listener and very caring. Rich will be sorely missed by all of us that knew him, for those that don’t I can vouch that he was special.”

Martin McGill, Senior Reserve Warden, WWT

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