Dick Balharry obituary

Dick Balharry was a once in a generation phenomenon. Proud, passionate, enthusiastic, encouraging and committed he single-handedly achieved

Dick Balharry was a once in a generation phenomenon. Proud, passionate, enthusiastic, encouraging and committed he single-handedly achieved a culture shift in conservation management in over half a century of work in Scotland’s countryside.

Starting as a gamekeeper and then a deer stalker Dick had the practical knowledge to back up his beliefs, which combined with his immense knowledge of Scotland’s wild places and wildlife helped guide the Deer Commission, Nature Conservancy, John Muir Trust and National Trust for Scotland and others at crucial stages during their histories and his career.

More importantly perhaps, was the personal inspiration and encouragement he gave to so many individuals of all ages and backgrounds across the country. For his love of nature was matched by his love of people from all walks of life. Whenever Dick encountered anyone in the wilds in any situation his first words would always be ‘Well hello, how are you!’ and he would engage them in a chat about what a beautiful day it was or a fantastic place they were in.

Physically, and in his lifetime achievements, comparisons with John Muir – the Scot who energised the American and ultimately the world’s national parks movement - are easy to make. Both men were extremely passionate. Both loved being outdoors in wild places and yet both were able to communicate their passion eloquently and persuasively to the general public as well as those in positions of power and influence.

Dick’s talks (illustrated with his own stunning photographs) and guided walks were entertaining and educational and given to audiences ranging from local natural history groups to international conferences. He also appeared on TV and radio, and wrote prolifically. Throughout all, his infectious enthusiasm crackled, engaging and often persuading his audiences with his love of nature and the need to respect its wise use.

It perhaps though, his perspectives on deer and natural woodland regeneration that is his greatest legacy. He turned the telescope 180 degrees around from the traditional deer stalkers’ focus of looking at how many deer you want to shoot, to thinking about what would be best for the habitat, the deer and society more generally. In a deeply rooted culture, this was highly controversial. In the heat of battle, when an angry landowner demanded to know ‘how many deer are you going to kill?’ Dick answered straight back, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘I’m not counting deer, I’m counting trees.’

His experiences from Beinn Eighe, Inshriach, Creag Meagaidh and Glenfeshie convinced him that deer fences were a failure of land management and that deer and woodland, rather than being separated, needed each other to thrive. It was therefore extremely fitting that he chose Glenfeshie, to launch what was to be his last initiative, a vison for land use in Scotland.

While receiving The Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s prestigious Geddes Environmental Medal days before he died, he chose not to dwell on his own remarkable achievements, but instead to honour the immense success produced by the owner and managers of Glenfeshie in regenerating the ancient native pinewoods there against all the odds. As he put it: ‘I have lived to see an impossible dream come true and that – is very special.’

He advocated that the approach taken at Glenfeshie should be the model for land use in Scotland. The challenge for those of us who follow is to make his vision a reality.

Dick Balharry (1937-2015)
Born Muirhead of Liff, near Dundee on 3 September
Died at home in Newtonmore on 22 April
Survived by wife Adeline (nee Croal). Son David. Daughter Dawn. Grandchildren Ross and Ryan.