On 15 March 2017, Ray Collier passed away, aged 79. Engagingly fascinated by nature in the Highlands, widely published – not least as one of The Guardian’s esteemed band of country diarists – and always curious and encouraging, ‘Chiefie’ was a popular and respected colleague in the early days of SNH. Iain Macdonald, our Biodiversity Strategy Officer, looks back at Ray’s working life and shares anecdotes from some of his other colleagues.
My first encounter with Ray was in the summer of 1988, in the then North West Region HQ of the Nature Conservancy Council. Bearded like Gandalf and well built, Ray filled the narrow corridor in Fraser Darling House. Bushy eyebrows and somewhat surly and quizzical countenance suggested a sense of aloofness, but not a bit of it – he engaged me with a twinkle in his eye and a barrage of questions about what I’d seen in the field.
Post retirement we chatted occasionally on the ‘phone about wildlife and what the nature conservation agencies were ’up to‘. Others knew him much better than me, having worked directly with the man widely known as ‘Chiefie’.
Starting as a Warden at Castor Hanglands NNR in East Anglia in 1961, Ray was promoted to Senior Warden in 1968 and moved to Inverpolly NNR in 1969. Two years later, he accepted a secondment to the Lincolnshire Trust for Nature Conservation, returning to the NCC in 1976 (having been promoted to Chief Warden in 1974).
Until 1977 Ray was based at Huntingdon before migrating north once more to become the Chief Warden for North West Region, based in Inverness. Ray remained in post until 1992, widely known as “Chiefie” as one of the cabal of Chief Wardens who ran the show when it came to reserve management throughout Britain. From 1992 until retirement, Ray held the post of Land Management Officer, also based at Inverness.
Peter Duncan, latterly of the Aviemore office knew and remembers Ray well: “I first met Ray in 1978, when I got the contract to count ducks and waders at Nigg Bay. First impression was of a man who enthused about his job and one who was willing to give every assistance to make conservation work.
“He supervised me when I was the contract warden on Rum for two years and persuaded me to undertake surveys on divers and dragonflies. Without his influence I would not have been able to publish two papers in the Hebridean Naturalist journal!
“He was my Chief Warden from 1985 when I was successful in getting Sunart first warden’s post. He was highly supportive of my work and helped me to establish a large number of monitoring projects: the first ever chequered skipper butterfly transect and a Common Birds Census at both Ariundle and Coille Thogabhaig.
“Ray was a true conservationist and one that wanted others to know about conservation – his newspaper articles were renowned. His love of photography, fishing and the keeping of poultry were other attributes. He always kept himself busy!”
Ray’s support for his colleagues and the NNRs that they worked on remains warmly appreciated. Bill Taylor, most recently based at the Kinlochewe office, recalls: “I remember when I was being interviewed in 1979 for Summer Warden on Rhum (as it was then) Chiefie sat in on the interview which was in the meeting room in Fraser Darling House. There was me, Chiefie and two others. No-one had put a warning on the door and Tom Cane wandered in at the usual coffee time and just sat down much to everyone’s surprise. Eventually Chiefie commented in his best Gloucestershire burr that Tom should b***** off as this was an interview – exit stage left one very embarrassed Buildings Officer. Ray was very supportive of his wardening staff at a time when money was very hard to come by and repairs to reserve houses had to be fought for very hard. These were the days when field staff and scientific staff were viewed in very different lights – Ray fought our corner at every opportunity.”
Ray knew ‘his’ NNRs well, literally writing the book on the subject, a Guide to Nature Reserves in NW Scotland. After working for several conservation agencies over a span of 34 years Ray remained active in ‘retirement’ as a nature writer. A skilled communicator, as already noted by Bill, Ray’s style was engaging and sought by several newspapers. The Guardian’s obituary to Ray pays tribute to a productive life, about a man brimming with passion for living things.
Indeed ‘times are a changin’, I think that is what many of us notice the most. Ray was old school and we will miss old school. Our thoughts extend to Val, Ray’s two sons, and Ray’s wider family and friends.