John Burton passed away at his home in Suffolk on Sunday morning.
I’ve known John mostly through the World Land Trust with which I’ve been connected for over a decade as a council member, a trustee and latterly as chair of trustees. John’s association with WLT is far longer and far more personal as he was a co-founder of it with Jerry Bertrand and Viv Burton and its leader for the next 30 years.
It will be as the founder and leader of WLT that John will mostly be remembered but his long career and deep influence go back much further and include being the Executive Secretary of Fauna and Flora International for a dozen years spanning the 1970s and 80s, Chair of TRAFFIC International in the late 1970s and working as a wildlife consultant for Friends of the Earth in the UK in its very early years in the early 1970s. John was Assistant Editor of Animals (now BBC Wildlife magazine), again in the early 1970s and had the same role for Birds of the World at around the same time. John was the founding Chair of the Bat Conservation Trust and served on committees of many other organisations such as the British Ornithologists’ Union and London Natural History Society. In fact, the more you look, the more you find John’s name popping up everywhere in UK and international conservation at times when some of us were still at school and before many of the current movers and shakers of conservation were born.
But it will be, rightly, John’s creation and leadership of the World Land Trust that will be his most obvious legacy. As the current chair of WLT I have already declared my interest, but John founded a gem of an organisation, and its past, present and future success is rooted in his vision. It’s a simple model: raise money and give it to other organisations around the world to buy, lease and manage land of high conservation (and carbon) value. A simple and generally effective model, but it only works if you can sell the vision to donors, and find in-country partners who can be relied upon to do the job of protecting that land long into the future. In less sure hands such a simple model could have fallen apart but John, his wife Viv and the WLT team delivered, and WLT continues to deliver it. The WLT model is quite similar to the original WWF model – raise money from the richer parts of the world and spend it quickly and wisely to do the most good wherever wildlife is threatened across the world. I’m glad that WLT is still pursuing that vision.
John was opinionated, and I like that in a person, particularly when, as with John, those opinions are based on experience, knowledge and a set of principles. I vaguely remember he and I disagreeing now and again while he was still working at World Land Trust, but I honestly can’t remember any particular instances, but I do recall standing in a bar with John several times having a laugh and a chat and thinking ‘We were having an argument half an hour ago – how wonderful!’. When John stepped down from the WLT getting on for three years ago he, understandably, found it difficult to cut the ties of three decades and was frustrated, to put it mildly, at some of the decisions made but he was generous in acknowledging that WLT had grown significantly in the last couple of years despite the massive shock to the system delivered by covid, in the UK and affecting WLT’s partners, which came close to derailing other conservation organisations whereas WLT had its strongest financial year ever.
WLT is John’s most obvious identifiable conservation legacy but one could make out a strong case that his influence on many of us over many decades, and across the globe, added up to an even greater impact. John was an enthusiast and a great communicator and he brought many new people into nature conservation through his enthusiasm. There are donors, practitioners, young people and formerly young people who are active in nature conservation now because of John’s personal influence on them. And many more whose views have been nudged and honed, and enthusiasm kindled by interacting with John. He was irritating, curmudgeonly, captivating and inspiring all at once, but many of us loved him to bits for that mixture. And his interactions with me almost always started and ended with us swapping our observations of wildlife, particularly birds, and comparing notes on nature. He had the view of the big picture but also an eye on the small stuff, and always a love of wildlife.
I visited John and Viv in April, when he was ill, tired but cogent, and again last Saturday, with Chris Packham, when John found speech very difficult. Each was an uplifting occasion, spending time with him and Viv, talking about old times and the future, and always about wildlife.
Viv Burton has been John’s partner in work as well as in life, and they were a team at work and at home. For all these years John and Viv have gone to work together, been at work together and gone home together and when John passed away they were together with Viv caring for him tenderly. I know that Viv’s friends, Viv’s and John’s friends, are rallying round at this time and will continue to provide support into the future.
John was a character, which is sometimes said of people about whom there is little else to say, but John was a character with character. A naturalist, writer, leader, entrepreneur, agitator, mentor and good friend, John was a man the like of which we see rarely, and he will be deeply missed by those whose lives he touched. He was a conservation giant and a remarkable man.