John Sawyer (1st November 1968 – 6th November 2015)

Today (25 November) is John Sawyer’s funeral and gathering in his remembrance.


John Sawyer

Some people, at the end of their lives, have obituaries written and waiting for that moment. But when the end is unexpected at the early age of 47, no one is ready. John, who all too briefly was Chief Executive of the National Biodiversity Network Trust, delivered a shock to all who knew him when, a couple of painful weeks ago, he suffered a terminal massive heart attack after a day botanising in the woods of Mull that he adored.

It is only a little more than a year since I first met John. But in that time he became important to me. He was a joyful person to be with; a man of commitment and principal; a gentle and humorous individual; a man who, looking to lead, sought cooperation and guidance, but held close to a clear view of what he wanted to do and why.

Looking through social media at the many condolences and memories written about him, one word stands out. That word is “inspirational”. It was his ability to define his goal and commit to its delivery that justifies that word. “If you expect people to get ready to come with you”, he said, “then put on your boots and open the door”.

He wanted those who prize nature and make and share their observations about it to work together. Taken together their evidence underpins and justifies the social and economic changes we need to make. The most powerful thing these people can do, he argued, is to make their information freely available and to collaborate through the most effective means available to bring their evidence to the attention and understanding of everybody else. What is needed, he said, is for all that evidence to be a treasure trove; not a hoard! Even now, I can hear his voice passionately and patiently (an unusual combination) explaining the ethical inconsistency of those who wish greater care for nature but inhibit the open release of information, so preventing the widest analysis and communication of what is happening.

Such common sense is important because it is radical. Currently, data are commonly inaccessible or guarded, protected or, indeed, priced. Furthermore, information is often (usually) presented in ways that make it impenetrable to most of us. It could be revolutionary if all data gatherers collaborated in delivering open data, and in presenting it in accessible and enticing ways.

John’s legacy is that, in his brief time, he did a lot to bring that about. The National Biodiversity Network (NBN) has always been an organisation drawing together the national and local societies that record wildlife (including SNH and the other country agencies) and engage in what increasingly is known as “citizen science”. But, John began to forge these disparate bodies into a closer community with the Outer Hebrides Biological Recording Group, for example, seeing more eye to eye than ever before with the likes of the British Trust for Ornithology and bodies such as SNH – and certainly, all feeling more common purpose in, and ownership of, the NBN. And, his work to transform the access to, and presentation of data, through the Atlas of Living Scotland (imminently to be followed by similar atlases for Wales and Northern Ireland – and hopefully England too) shows how dramatically and quickly progress can be made in opening up data sources and making them accessible and meaningful to a wider audience.

Before landing back in Scotland, John spent close to two decades in New Zealand from where some of his “edgy” style of leadership might have derived. He knew the road he wanted to travel challenged a lot of the core beliefs of many of the groups he had to work with. But like the New Zealand “All Blacks” in their style of rugby – which he much admired – John’s stance was based in self-belief, careful attention to detail and perhaps most importantly on dependency and trust in a team with a shared strategy, commitment and vision. His small secretariat became the core of that team, but bit by bit was joined by member after member of the Trust too.

As a trustee of the NBN I share his vision and I know that SNH, too, is committed to its delivery. The Scottish piloting of the first “Atlas of Living” in the UK is testament to that. It will continue to be part of what we do to conserve and enhance Scotland’s natural heritage and further its understanding and enjoyment.

But our heart goes out to John’s partner, Karlene, their expected child and their wider family. They have lost far more than we have.

Roddy Fairley

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