Jon Hardey, expert on peregrine falcons and other upland birds of prey

Born: 24 January 1950;

Died: 19 July 2019

Jon, who has died aged 69, belonged to the North East Branch of the Scottish Raptor Study Group, consisting of remarkable and feisty specialists studying the ecology, behaviour and changing fortunes of birds of prey. For several years Jon chaired the NE group.

He specialised in peregrine falcons, and was encouraged to do so by his idol, the late Dr Derek Ratcliffe, who wrote the acclaimed monograph The Peregrine Falcon (1980, 2nd edn. 1993). The north east Scotland peregrine population was critically important in Derek’s classic unravelling of the effects of agricultural pesticides in eggshell thinning and catastrophic breeding failure in the 1950s and 1960s. That was because the peregrine populations in the Deeside and Angus hills, and in Speyside, functioned as a ‘normal’ population in one of the few areas in Britain with very low contamination risk. Building on the intensive survey work of the late Doug Weir and Adam Watson, and more recent monitoring by Roy Dennis and others, Hardey sustained the peregrine monitoring effort, which provided a benchmark against which the recovery of other populations could be assessed as restrictions in the use of cyclodiene pesticides took effect in 1962-64.

In 2003 Hardey and colleagues published a key paper on variation in breeding success of peregrines in north-east, central and south-west Scotland. Covering the period 1991-2000, and published in the book ‘Birds of Prey in a Changing Environment’ (with a Foreword by Derek), this paper was one of the first to show that in more recent years poor breeding success was linked to high levels of criminal persecution associated with grouse moors. Even more up to date work published in Scottish Birds has shown an on-going decline in the peregrine population in the eastern Cairngorms associated with intensive management for driven grouse shooting, but a modest increase on the coast.

Arguably Hardey's greatest achievement came with the establishment of the award winning Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme, founded in 2002 in response to a government-led UK Raptor Working Group Report published in 2000. This recommended a range of actions on raptors, including the development of systematic monitoring methods. Jon was commissioned to lead a team producing a field guide for raptor surveys and monitoring, which was duly published in 2006. The success of Raptors: a field guide for surveys and monitoring was phenomenal, with the book reprinted twice in 2007, and reaching a third edition by 2013. It set the standard for formal monitoring of birds of prey, and the field methods have been adopted across many European countries. However, this success rested on two of Hardey’s great strengths: first, his experience and exceptional skills in raptor fieldwork; and second, his strong connections with scores of raptor specialists who were only too willing to share their nuggets of knowledge and experience – not something done lightly. Hardey was enthusiastic, highly motivated and persistent in putting to excellent use his and others’ first-hand experience and knowledge of raptors, particularly peregrines.

He had an uncanny ability to build and sustain relationships with landowners, factors and keepers on shooting estates which enabled him to gain access on private estate roads. A keen and experienced bird ringer, his skills as a naturalist ran to dissecting in detail the prey remains in peregrine eyries to prove to doubting keepers that peregrines didn’t just eat grouse. Hardey was instrumental in setting up ‘Operation Falcon Watch’, a joint agency approach to monitoring peregrines, ostensibly to stop egg collectors but also to look out for raptor persecution.

Born in Edgbaston, Birmingham,Hardey’s father, Ronnie, was a member of the No. 6 Commando’s and was active in the D-Day landings, for which he received the Military Cross; he returned to train commandos at Achnacarry, Lochaber, before becoming a Company Accountant. His mother, Margaret, was a WRNS driver in the Second World War, and became active in the British Horse Society.

Attending Larchfield Prep School in Helensburgh, then Sedbergh School in Yorkshire, Hardey went to Queens University in Belfast, where in 1973 he took a BSc Honours degree in Zoology. He loved the student life and immersed himself in the political and cultural scenes of Belfast. Moving to Aberdeen to take a MSc degree in Ecology in 1975, Hardey met his wife-to-be, Lorna, on a field trip to the Bettyhill Field Station, in north Sutherland. They married in Tain, Easter Ross, on June 28 1975. During family visits to Tain, where Lorna’s parents ran the well-known shop, Forsyth’s, Hardey studied birds in the north Highlands where he met the renowned ornithologist, Desmond Nethersole-Thompson in nearby Culrain, Sutherland, to whom Hardey and friends provided invaluable intelligence on the status of rare nesting birds, which Desmond included in his later books.

Professionally, he was principal teacher of biology at Westhill Academy, Aberdeenshire, from 1984 to 2000. Revered by generations of students for his inspirational teaching and hands-on laboratory classes, Hardey was par excellence the gruff master who gave vent to wonderfully humorous and lasting memories which many pupils have since described as helping define their chosen paths. Described by one former pupil as ‘a modern day Hagrid’, he sustained his pupils’ enjoyment with a menagerie of study animals, including 'Cowpat' the toad, and ‘Boris’ the tarantula!

On retirement, Hardey took on various commissions from Scottish Natural Heritage and wind energy companies, specialising in surveys of montane birds, raptors and bats.

Outwardly entertaining in describing the antics of his mainly bearded field colleagues, he was shy and diffident. He was a fervent follower of the national rugby team, and enjoyed the prelude socialising, which often meant very late arrivals at Murrayfield. Kind and pointedly playing up others’ special strengths, he could be both outrageously irreverent and schoolmasterly solemn.

He is survived by his wife Lorna, sons John and Paddy, daughter Alison, sister Nicky, and brother Mike; Rodge predeceased him.

Mick Marquiss, Robert Rae, Logan Steele and Des Thompson