Birds and habitats – the domain of Rob Fuller

Andy Douse and Des Thompson reflect on the work of Professor Rob Fuller, who has recently retired as Director of Science with the British Trust for Ornithology.

In 1982 an important volume was published in the now classic Poyser series of bird books. Bird Habitats in Britain, written by Rob Fuller, gave us for the first time a comprehensive overview of the bird communities of each of the main habitats. Richly adorned by 53 of Donald Watson’s finest paintings and scraperboard etchings, the book explains the richness and variety of bird species across the country. Based on the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) ‘Register of Ornithological Sites’ – the first fully documented listing of sites important for birds – Rob developed in detail the earlier list of nationally important sites given in A Nature Conservation Review (1977)

Today, we have inventories of important bird sites globally, across Europe and of course the UK ( But, Rob’s book marked the beginning of this.

Rob is one of our most modest ornithologists, who was entertainingly bashful when recently surprised by a full-day conference at the BTO HQ in Thetford to mark his imminent retirement and many contributions to science.

On graduating in Zoology at Imperial College, London in 1973 Rob immediately secured a job with the BTO as National Organiser of ‘the Register’, which involved a huge effort mobilising volunteers to collect data on species and habitats used to compile the inventory of thousands of sites important for birds. This, along with the forerunner fieldwork contributing to The Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland (1976), covering the period 1968-72, was the exemplar of the fruits of what we now call ‘citizen science’. His work on Bird Habitats in Britain was developed into a PhD submission, awarded by the University of London in 1987 – for its time, one of the earliest PhDs awarded in ecology for an ‘external’ student rather than the more orthodox full-time student based at a university.

Rob went on to lead the scientific efforts to make the BTO the nationally and internationally revered organisation it is today – combining volunteer-collected data with professional analyses and interpretation. Many colleagues helped with this, and his co-Director of Science, Dr Stephen Baillie, and Director Professor Jeremy Greenwood (who retired in 2007) , deserve special mention. Following heavy involvement in the second Bird Atlas (covering 1988-91), he supervised the production of what has been described as the ‘monumental’ Bird Atlas 2007–11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland, published to great acclaim in 2013

In SNH, beyond Rob’s collegiate leadership of the BTO science, we want to highlight three areas of work. First, Rob has massively developed our understanding of how land use and habitat changes have influenced bird numbers and distribution. In 2012 Cambridge University Press (CUP) published Birds and Habitats: Relationships in changing landscapes. Edited solely by Rob, this is a tour de force of our knowledge of bird-habitat relationships across the globe at a variety of scales. Rob’s work on agricultural and woodland landscapes has significantly advanced our understanding of management measures which best benefit birds.   Building on another of his CUP books, Birdlife of Woodland and Forest (1995), Rob established the Bradfield Woods experimental study in Suffolk, which is proving so instructive in pointing up the influences of deer browsing and grazing on vegetation and birdlife.  In Scotland Rob pioneered work on scrub and woodland communities particularly in relation to successional dynamics of bird communities, effects of habitat management, and the impacts arising from increasing deer populations.

Benbecula from South Uist.

Benbecula from South Uist. ©Lorne Gill

Rob’s passion for trout fishing in the myriad lochs of the Uists has given us another key and lasting contribution. In the 1970s he did a great amount of fieldwork in the Western Isles, whilst on ‘fishing holidays’, in his free time surveying the machair for waders. Through this on-going work, and careful analyses of his and others data, Rob has been able to advise on the impacts of 1980s agricultural developments in the Isles, and more recently on the predation by non-native hedgehogs on dunlin and other wader populations.

Awarded the prestigious Godman-Salvin Medal of the British Ornithologists’ Union (2013) and the RSPB Medal for services to nature conservation (2014), Rob is beguilingly unassuming. His modesty, innovative thinking, keenness to work with a wide range of naturalists, steadfast concentrated effort to get jobs done, and exemplary approach to working in partnership with government officials, agencies and NGOs all embody an exceptional individual – a great friend to SNH and hundreds of birdwatchers working throughout Britain.

If you have the good fortune to be in the Uists in the spring, and spot a solitary, fleece-wearing chap with binoculars and fishing one of the better trout lochs, do go and speak with him. If you are not so sure that it is Rob, have a look here at him describing why he is so concerned about the plight of the nightingale He is delightful, and will warmly regale you with tales of bird watching – and some nice trout which got away!

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