6th September 2022

John Andrew Burton 1944 - 2022

John Burton with the John Spedan Lewis medal, awarded in 2019 by the Linnean Society 'for his significant and innovative contribution to conservation' (c) World Land Trust

John Burton, one of the most influential figures in conservation in the UK and pivotal in establishing the Bat Conservation Trust, died at his home in Suffolk on 22 May 2022.

After a short career at the Natural History Museum, then a freelance writer and wildlife consultant, he joined the Fauna Preservation Society (later Fauna and Flora Preservation Society – FFPS) as Assistant Secretary (later, Executive Secretary or Chief Executive) in 1975.

The 1979 Bern Convention (The Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats) was one of the drivers of the UK’s Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981(WCA81), and Burton was one of the main lobbyists for the NGOs. The Act gave bats absolute protection in their roosts, and they became among the best protected of Britain’s wildlife. Volunteer bat groups sprang up around the country and were in need of coordination and support.

As a direct result of seminars for bat group members held in London Zoo, FFPS established The Bat Project in June 1984 and this marked the foundation of a bat conservation organisation in the UK. Burton persuaded his friend Tony Hutson to leave his established post in the Entomology Department in the British Museum (Natural History) to become the UK’s first bat conservation officer. In the autumn of that year, Simon Mickleburgh joined the project as the London Bat Project Officer, funded by the Greater London Council.

From 1984 for a five year period, quarterly meetings of what was referred to as ‘Bat Groups of Britain’ were held for representatives of the increasing number of bat groups and other bodies involved in bat conservation. However because of their own funding constraints, funders gradually withdrew their support for the Bat Project.

When in late 1989, support for Bat Groups of Britain seemed to be on the verge of collapse, John Burton convened a meeting in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, which turned out to be the single most important meeting in the history of bat conservation in the UK. This meeting agreed ‘A Bat Conservation Programme’ (dated 2 November 1989). This gave the background to and a proposal for an independent bat conservation programme. At this meeting the decision was taken to register The Bat Conservation Trust as a charity in 1990, and John Burton acted as founding chairman up to an Inaugural Meeting on 15 September 1990 at Leicester, at which Paul Racey was elected chairman. In September 1996 John was elected as a Vice-President to the BCT.

In the 1970s John had been a key player in the establishment of TRAFFIC (Trade Records Analysis of Fauna and Flora in Commerce) to assist in the implementation of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). His ongoing involvement with TRAFFIC and the convention was of great value to FFPS when supporting the efforts to get the larger fruit bats listed in CITES in the late 1980s.

In about 1982 Bob Stebbings and Merlin Tuttle approached John Burton with the proposal to develop an international organisation for the conservation of bats. John took this to the FFPS council which approved Bat Conservation International as an affiliated group with offices in London and USA. Slow communication and other difficulties and differences in approach meant an early recognition that a joint UK/US approach was not going to work and so the US arm was allowed to retain the name and develop independently. Nevertheless the FFPS kept a strong involvement in international bat conservation through the IUCN/SSC Chiroptera Specialist Group.

FFPS also maintained a strong interest in the newly formed CMS (Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals). At its CoP1 in 1985, John and two others drew up a proposal for an Agreement on the conservation of European bats and Resolution 1.6 instructed the secretariat to take appropriate measures to develop Agreements for, inter alia, European species of Chiroptera. The UK government agreed to take this forward and passed it to FFPS. With the help of Simon Lyster, a wildlife lawyer then with WWF, the elements of an agreement were drafted and this was presented to an international discussion meeting convened by FFPS at the Linnaean Society in 1987. Progress was then slow since the development of such agreements was new to governments; eventually the Agreement was opened for signature in 1991, but by that time John was busy developing the World Land Trust (at that time Programme for Belize). For more on the development of EUROBATS see EUROBATS Publications Series no 1.

John’s last venture into bat conservation was to advise and support the Sussex Bat Appeal to raise funds to enable The Vincent Wildlife Trust to buy the roost site of a small pioneer colony of greater horseshoe bats in West Sussex.

Kindly written by Tony Hutson & Paul Racey