Jeff's Biography

Jeff Watson

Ornithologist Known Worldwide As An Authority On The Golden Eagle

The Independent Thursday, 4 October 2007

Jeff Watson, zoologist and conservationist: born Newcastle 24 December 1952; staff, Nature Conservancy Council (later Scottish Natural Heritage) 1981-2007, Director of Operations (North Scotland) 1997-2007; married 1983 Vanessa Halhead (one son); died Balblair, Highland 19 September 2007.

Jeff Watson was one of Britain’s leading ornithologists, known the world over as an authority on that most majestic of birds, the golden eagle. He pioneered methods of studying this shy and elusive bird which have influenced its conservation worldwide. His book The Golden Eagle, published in 1997, is regarded as a classic, and was recently translated into Japanese. Watson was delighted when, in 2004, the golden eagle was declared to be Scotland’s national bird. Shortly before his death, he was awarded the rarely bestowed RSPB Conservation Medal in recognition of his work.

He was born in 1952 in Newcastle, and grew up in St John’s Town of Dalry, Galloway, where his parents, Donald and Joan Watson, had settled in 1951. Jeff was educated first at the village primary school, and then at Edinburgh Academy. His interest in wildlife, particularly birds of prey, was fostered by his father, Donald Watson, a wellknown bird artist and author of an acclaimed book, The Hen Harrier (1977).

Walking the hills of Galloway with his father, Jeff Watson became familiar with most of Britain’s birds of prey, and the experience kindled his lifelong passion for eagles. Watson graduated in Zoology at Aberdeen University in 1974. He spent the next four years in the Seychelles, studying the Seychelles kestrel, an endemic and endangered bird, for which he was awarded a doctorate by Aberdeen University in 1977. He stayed on to produce conservation plans for other local birds. In particular, Watson worked out a way of “translocating” the threatenedmagpie robin to safe refuges. The technique was novel then, but it has since been much used by conservation bodies, especially in island countries.

Returning to the UK in 1978, Watson worked as development officer for the Scottish Wildlife Trust for a while, before landing his dream job, a specialist on golden eagles with the then Nature Conservancy Council (now Scottish Natural Heritage). His main task was to provide scientific information to underpin a conservation policy for the eagle. He set about it, characteristically, by devoting as much time as possible to studying the bird in the field. He worked out a method of survey based on straight-line “transects” across eagle country, on which he noted down all forms of potential eagle food – dead sheep and deer, and live mountain hares, rabbits and grouse.

Physical fitness and patience, as well as a good eye for spotting birds and nests, was necessary. Fortunately, with his large, rugged frame and long legs, Watson was a tireless walker. For five years, with the help of a growing band of supporters and his wife, Vanessa, he tramped the Highlands from his base in a camper-van, covering hundreds of miles of eagle territory. It is said that he got through two pairs of boots every year. The mass of detailed data thus obtained enabled Watson to come to some striking conclusions about Scottish golden eagles. First, the greatest density of breeding birds was related to the amount of carrion on the ground. But, surprisingly, the birds bred successfully only where there was also plenty of live food in the spring. This discovery effectively cracked open the mystery of why so many of Scotland’s eagles were failing to raise young. Noticing that eagle feathers were often easy to find near nest sites, Watson suggested a then experimental way of identifying individual birds without disturbing them. Feathers contain distinctive DNA, and so individual birds can be “fingerprinted” using molecular analysis. So far,almost half of Britain’s population of golden eagles has been labeled in this way, allowing the progress of particular birds to be monitored.

Watson also pioneered the idea of distinctive eagle “regions” based on land-use, in which the birds modify their behaviour to cope with particular local circumstances. He recognised nine such regions, including grouse moor, deer ranges, sheep walks and forested areas. All contained breeding eagles,
but each required a different approach to conservation. His work provided a science-based framework for eagle conservation which has attracted attention wherever eagles fly, from central Asia to North America. Watson maintained a correspondence with eagle workers across the world. He kept a particularly keen eye on the reintroduction programme in Ireland, for which surplus eagle chicks were donated from eyries which Watson had watched for many years.

His work, followed by his The Golden Eagle, made Jeff Watson something of an ornithological celebrity. However, he was personally modest, and genuinely embarrassed by praise, though encouraging to up-and-coming ornithologists. For him, the real stars were the eagles. He was a gifted photographer, producing images of birds in their natural landscape setting that are reminiscent of the paintings of his father.

In 1997, Watson was promoted to Director of Operations and Strategy in Scottish Natural Heritage’s northern region, with overall responsibility for the conservation of the country’s Special Protection Areas. He organised and oversaw scientific programmes to monitor habitats and landforms, as well as an overhaul of Scotland’s network of National Nature Reserves. He helped to set up Scotland’s second national park, in the Cairngorms, and advised the Scottish Executive on the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act of 2004, which brought conservation in Scotland in line with EU standards of wildlife protection. He also represented the UK as a council member of Eurosite, and was a trustee of the Biodiversity Network.

Jeff Watson contributed to a number of television documentaries, including one on the wildlife of the Seychelles, filmed in 1983, and more recently others on eagles and owls. He lived for many years at Balblair on the Black Isle of Cromarty.


Peter Marren