Kent Life interviews Professor Ian Swingland, OBE

He's a personal friend of David Attenborough and Prince Charles, a zoologist, an inventor and he likes cooking and growing trees

Animal magic

He’s a personal friend of David Attenborough and Prince Charles, a zoologist, an inventor and he likes cooking and growing trees. Meet the extraordinary Professor Ian Swingland

With a brain roughly the size of the planet, the ability to talk non-stop on any subject and more contacts than Her Majesty – whom he advises – Professor Ian Swingland has already achieved more in his 65 years  than most of us mere mortals would in several lifetimes.

So how would he describe himself to a stranger? “If I’m sitting on a plane, I simply say ‘I work on giant tortoises’ and that usually stops the conversation.

“If I say I used to be the world’s authority on sex and the evolution of sex, it causes an enormous conversation. But I’ve never really found the answer. Because I love animals, I started off as a zoologist, then I did social anthropology, then I became a mathematician at Shell Research, ands ever since then I’ve acquired more and more skills.

“Charles Tassell (see page xx) recently introduced me before I gave a speech to the NFU by saying I had some funny hobbies – ‘Ian likes cooking, likes growing trees, and is very good at losing things.’ People call me an expert in sustainable development, but fundamentally, I’m just someone who loves animals.”

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Ian, an only child, remembers his mother asking him at the age of four what he was going to do when he grew up, and replying ‘animals,’ to which she said ‘oh – a vet.’

So when he was about 16, he duly went to work in a veterinary practice, but quickly learnt that he couldn’t stand the people who owned the animals.

“Then my relatives suggested I became a doctor but I said no, because it would involve human beings, then someone suggested a museum, but that sounded very dull, then I was told ‘you have to go to university, maybe you want to be an academic?’

But I didn’t think I was clever enough to be an academic.

“I’d always been very inquisitive and knowledgeable, but when it came to exams, I was dreadful at them,” admits Ian, who has the skewed brilliance of the dyslexic.

“I wasn’t very conventional – I was always thinking sideways.”

People call me an expert in sustainable development, but fundamentally, I’m just someone who loves animals

Ian is certainly no stereotypical boffin – he’s engaging, highly sociable, happily married to Fi, with whom he has a grown-up son and daughter he adores – as he does his year-old cocker spaniel Buster (it’s mutual). And his very rare, very expensive black Indonesian chickens.

There are souvenirs of his worldwide travels and interests everywhere: a giant tortoise and the horns of a male sable sit next to family photos and tasteful watercolours in one bedroom.

In his study there are poison-tipped darts from Borneo, while the conservatory - Ian’s gift to himself “after working my arse off for 50 years and never having bought myself a big present” – is home to a replica baby African elephant and a crocodile, another giant tortoise, and several semi-tropical trees, including citrus, because: “my idea of a great Gin and tonic is picking the lime from a tree right behind me.”

As he shows me around we do a quick romp through Ian’s cv, or rather the highlights, otherwise I would have been at his lovely home in rural Nash all week.

After reading read zoology and social anthropology at London University, he worked for Shell Research then took a PhD in ecology in the Forestry and Natural Resources Department at Edinburgh University.

In 1974 he joined Oxford University’s Zoology Department to carry out research on the giant tortoises of Aldabra Atoll, which saw him living on a tiny desert island in the Indian Ocean more or less on his own for two years – neglecting to tell his parents until his return.

Five years later, Ian was appointed to the University of Kent to create its Natural Science Continuing Education programme, where he helped set up the national Access course for people who wanted to study in higher education but had left school without the necessary qualifications.

Ten years later he founded DICE, The Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, a research and postgraduate conservation training institute, deliberately choosing ‘practical people, not academics’ to work with him and naming it in honour of his good friend, Gerald Durrell.

While at DICE, Ian served as director and was elected to the first Chair in Conservation Biology in the UK.

A serious health scare caused him to retire from the University in 1999, but he continues to serve as Professor Emeritus, and as chair of the Durrell Trust.

Needless to say, Ian didn’t stay retired for long and to occupy himself, started a number of businesses, which have all grown and flourished under his Midas touch – including Sustainable Forestry Management, a private company established to demonstrate that returns can be generated by investment in the world’s tropical and sub-tropical forests on an integrated, sustainable and ethical basis.

Widely respected, Ian advises members of the Royal Family, “primarily Prince Charles but I have been asked to assist Her Majesty when, for example, ‘a certain gentleman wants to knock down oak trees at Windsor Great Park and what are We going to do about it?’

“Charles does things that Governments can’t do – he is one voice who can say what he likes. I do advise Government, but refuse to be on any committee or advisory board. I just give them my best objective advice.”

Ian has had a lifelong involvement in national and international charities which improve the environment and people’s standard of living and was a Trustee of Earthwatch for a decade.

He is Trust Chairman of Operation Wallacea, which funds projects that seek to empower communities and individuals to develop successful, commercially viable enterprises linked to the protection of biodiversity.

Sister organisation, Opwall Trust was created in 2000 to provide the focus for funding conservation management interventions at Operation Wallacea study sites.

“This collaboration between a business funded-model and a charity has proved to be a strong symbiotic relationship,” explains Ian.

“The costs of identifying potential projects to fund and the mechanisms most likely to be successful are all part of the Operation Wallacea-funded research programmes, so the Opwall Trust does not need to spend hard-won funds on initial project development.”

Ian is also chair of the Rural Regeneration Unit, a social enterprise dedicated to self-help projects and a substantial food co-operative, which has won prizes from the World Health Organisation, Carnegie United Kingdom Trust and the Durrell Trust for Conservation Biology, the Trust dedicated to support DICE.

He has served on the RSPCA Council and as Chair of its Wildlife Committee - and delivered its 150th anniversary lecture. He’s been the longest-standing board member to the Darwin Initiative and has chaired the Apple and Pear Research Council, now part of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, since 2003.

Ian was made an OBE in 2007 for his services to conservation and also given an honorary Doctor of Sciences by the University of Kent. Naturally he is the author of numerous published works and scientific papers, and greatly in demand as a public speaker.

So will he ever retire properly, or at least, slow down? “I actually don’t want to live a long time,” he says, very firmly. “I do not want to spend the last 12 years of my life in a wheelchair or going gaga, so I am absolutely for voluntary euthanasia.

“I will try and do what I can over the next 10 to 12 years, but if I suddenly drop dead when I’m walking across an airport to catch another plane, or because I’m involved in making something very exciting happen – well, fine. I’d much rather do that. I’ve almost certainly burnt the candle at both ends all my life.”

Someone said to me recently, ‘how have you done all you’ve done? When you read your cv it sounds like seven different people?’ But I’m not personally ambitious, I just like to make things happen that work and aren’t happening yet, and to make things better. That’s what I’m ambitious for.

“At heart I’m an inventor, and a very successful one, the business of creating substantial initiatives is something that is second nature to me. But you pay a very high personal price being that sort of person, it can be really tough.”

My final question is to ask Ian what he is most proud of. He pauses for the merest fraction of a second before exclaiming: “I know! I’m most proud of the fact that I have made thousands and thousands of people’s lives in many different countries better. That’s it. That’s my epitaph.”

My favourite Kent

What do you like about Kent?

Kent has got more of everything than any other county wishes it has. We’ve got more inventiveness, more interesting ways of faming, more land. Kent is enormous, and it’s stunning. I also love the Kentish summer – it can’t be beat. And I like the pragmatic straightforwardness, people do call a spade a shovel

Why Nash?

I wanted to live in a house that people would find difficult to find, which had woodland and where there weren’t people who lived too close, but if they did, they would be part of my life. We’re quite high up here, so you can say right across Thanet.

How long have you lived in Kent?

I’ve lived in Kent 33 years, but the Swinglands have been here 476 years

Favourite walk?

Heart’s Delight, nearby and by the river, where I can walk my dog

Favourite view?

Standing on the hills above Wye and looking across the land to the south. That is stunning

Favourite restaurants?

Age & Son in Ramsgate and Read’s at Faversham. We’re pretty bloody good at cooking food in this county

Favourite dish?

To cook myself: Beef Wellington, made with truffles, which is to die for. But my favourite dish of all is full English breakfast.

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