Ornithologist with encyclopaedic grasp of his subject
OSCAR MERNE: Oscar Merne, who has died aged 69, has left an invaluable, if low-profile, legacy to Irish biodiversity, and thus to future generations of Irish people.
He grew up in south Co Dublin, in a family where happy engagement with the natural world, from swimming to fishing to bird-watching, was part of every weekend, and many weekdays too.
For Merne, this passion became the core of his distinguished professional life with the Bird Research Unit of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
From his youth, Merne had combined the enthusiasm of the amateur naturalist with the rigour of the budding scientist. He seems to have grasped intuitively that the birds and wild places he loved would only be conserved if they were properly recorded.
What isn’t counted doesn’t count with policymakers. Science is the foundation on which the case for a protected species or area is built.
To this end, Merne had a legendary skill, regarded as unique by many of his colleagues. He could quickly and accurately assess the numbers of vast flocks of birds, usually distant and often in poor visibility.
The unique aspect was that he could count several species simultaneously, often while his companions were still trying to work out exactly what they were looking at.
Even as a young amateur, already recording rarities and assessing significant bird populations, he drew the attention of the leading lights of postwar ornithology, including Maj Robin Ruttledge in Ireland and Sir Peter Scott in Britain.
In the 1960s, he was one of the founders of the precursor of BirdWatch Ireland.
His first job as an ornithologist was as warden of Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, which he rapidly established as a flagship conservation institution, nationally and internationally. Here he demonstrated another vital skill in this field, the ability to work co-operatively with local interest groups, including landowners and hunters.
Migratory wetland birds, especially seabirds, became and remained his core interests. Since the latter often nest on remote cliffs, Merne was lucky only to suffer one serious injury, late in his life, in all his intrepid expeditions to places like the Skelligs and the Saltees.
He either initiated or was deeply involved in the field work and reporting of every significant survey of Irish birds since the 1970s. He was also extremely active as a bird ringer and mentored hundreds of newcomers in this tricky but essential scientific task.
His encyclopaedic research was reflected in many aspects of the 1976 Wildlife Act and especially in the identification and establishment of 110 special protection areas for birds following the 1979 EU birds directive. That is his living legacy, along with some 270 scientific publications, and several books.
Yet he somehow also found the time to be the heart and soul of a beloved and loving family in his long-time home in Bray, Co Wicklow.
He is remembered by his many colleagues and friends for his energy, his meticulous professionalism, and his great generosity.
He is survived by his wife Margaret, his children Cian, Catherine and Jane, his grandson Ryan and his sisters, Morna and Cloida.