Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 30: Scotland/Mayne 1952-1960

"Climatic changes in northern continental Europe are real."

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

Cowan had not been back to Scotland since he was 3. With the opportunity of a sabbatical year and a Nuffield Travelling Fellowship, it was an obvious choice to return to Scotland with Joyce and the children, now 8 and 12. He had plans to finish The Mammals of BC, look at museum collections and catch up with European researchers and his Scottish clan. He was sailing into an inner circle of naturalist–scientist–conservationists who were changing worldviews in the same way their Scottish forebears had done 300 years earlier. It was a heady brew and as usual Cowan wasted no time getting to know the landscape and its inhabitants in all their diversity. His time in Scotland also plunged him more deeply into the marine realm and into the air – with broadcasting.

Cowan immediately hooked up with the ornithologists. In the first week, he joined a “ringing” [“banding”] expedition to the Isle of May field station that monitored a famous bird-breeding colony in the Firth of Forth. The whole family also travelled to the Aberdeenshire coast to visit the seabird colonies. In 1952 the Scottish kittiwake population was just starting to recover in the Atlantic after centuries of persecution and the collapse of their main source of spring food, the herring. Accompanying them at Fowlsheugh was ecologist–ornithologist Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards from the University of Aberdeen, in whose company Cowan delighted. Wynne-Edwards was a born naturalist “butterfly boy” and spent the pre-war and war years as a zoologist in Canada at McGill. Travelling back and forth across the Atlantic watching seabirds, he had developed the terms “inshore,” “offshore” and “pelagic” to describe the zones that different seabird species occupied. His reputation at the time largely came from this work on zonation. Similarly in his work on seabird colonies, Wynne-Edwards had mapped out how the different colony nesting species not only arrange themselves on the cliffs and offshore islands for protection from predators, but pace themselves throughout the breeding season to maximize their use of food supplies.

Ian McTaggart Cowan in formal dress (1953)

Wynne-Edwards gained his highest honours for his theory of group selection – how groups of animals like the seabirds used mechanisms like hormones and territoriality to regulate populations and avoid overuse of their food. Along the cliffs of Fowlsheugh, conversations with Wynne-Edwards roamed to their shared interest in supporting naturalist clubs. Wynne-Edwards had revitalized the Scottish Ornithological Society (SOC), on par with Cowan’s involvement in the Vancouver Natural History Society. They also shared an interest in deer. Wynne-Edwards had been researching the current management of private deer estates, the same ones that had tried to exclude Cowan’s ancestor Balfour a century before. Overstocking of deer was continuing to destroy any hope of regenerating Scotland’s forests. The strategy that Wynne-Edwards adopted was to position himself on scientific committees to review and guide government policy, on everything from forests to whales. Tedious but effective. Cowan also attended his friend’s lecture on what in those days was called “climatic change” in which Cowan notes in his journal: “Climatic changes in northern continental Europe are real.” Unfortunately, neither of the two scientists would be able to convince any political party of the true severity of the problems of climate change over the course of their equally long lives, despite raising the alarm as early as 1952.

Over the next month, Cowan had investigated a domesticated British vole colony, written up the BC voles chapter for his book, researched specific domestic sheep parasites and had a meeting with oceanographer Maxwell John Dunbar, internationally renowned for his work on the Arctic, climate change, paleoecology and zoogeography. Dunbar and Cowan shared Edinburgh as their birthplace (born four years apart), both had emigrated to Canada and both shared a wide range of interests, including conservation. Dunbar, like Wynne-Edwards, had also ended up at McGill but had spent much of his time in the Arctic doing research. 

Ian McTaggart Cowan travel journal (1952-1953) : Scotland

Cowan delivered his lecture to the Royal Society billed as “The Origin of the Vertebrate Fauna of Western North America.” On that night, Cowan was at the top of his game and took the audience on an entertaining tour back in time to the glacial era. Tidbits of his lecture were reported in the press: “Far to the north of the ice sheet the Yukon Valley, central and northern Alaska and large parts of the Aleutian chain also remained ice free. Here a more limited subarctic fauna waited out the refrigeration.” He saved his island insulation theories of the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) for the end.

After a research visit to Denmark, Sweden and Finland, Cowan returned to the Scottish shores brimming with ideas and sightings of pelagic Razorbills which beat the boat there. Razorbills are cousins to the Thick-billed Murres in BC. These murres had special significance for the Cowans because Kenneth Racey had found what he thought was one of the first specimens in BC. One had washed up dead at Boundary Bay in 1941, although it later proved to be a Common Murre. A Thick-billed Murre breeding colony did establish itself on Triangle Island off Vancouver Island in 1980.

He also had his first meeting with Peter Scott, which was to influence the course of the next decade of his life. As the only son of the Antarctic explorer Robert Scott, Peter Scott was already well known to the British public as a bird artist, popular writer and lecturer on natural history. He was emerging on the scene in 1952, having founded the Severn Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge, a popular destination where the public learned about birds and wetlands. That same year, Scott had started a children’s radio show on the BBC called Nature Parliament and in 1955 he would launch a television career that would make him a household name. His experiences were ripe for adaptation in Canada by Cowan.

In the spring of 1953, Cowan toured the Highlands of Scotland in a 1928 Rolls Royce, camping as they went, with Frank Fraser Darling, senior lecturer in zoology at Edinburgh University. He was a renowned naturalist, ecologist and writer, later knighted, who was best known for his books that popularized science and ecology. The concept of the ecological survey, using a combination of biological observation, traditional knowledge and social, political and economic methodologies, was attributed to him. Darling had collaborated with Starker Leopold on the deer work and Cowan had an instant entrée through the ‘B.’

Vero and Janet Wynne-Edwards (1952)

The main stop in the Highlands was at one of Darling’s new ecology research projects on red deer at Glen Strathfarrar, known as the “last of the great unspoiled glens,” Darling was adamant that the economic, cultural and ecological restoration of the land had to be linked together. Ironically, everything was washed away in 1962 when the valley was flooded with the construction of Britain’s largest hydroelectric arch dam. It sparked outrage in Scotland, and the story (as well as the narrator) were brought back to the new world by the ‘B.’

In the early 1960s, Cowan, Darling and Starker Leopold became scientific advisers to an American non-profit called the Conservation Foundation, set up in 1948 with some help from Laurance Rockefeller “to promote knowledge of the earth’s resources.” It had a mandate for research, education and “to encourage human conduct to sustain and enrich life on earth.” The foundation was instrumental in laying down the scientific groundwork for most of the 1960s environmental campaigns, such as the fight against DDT and for soil conservation. One of the projects they initiated was a conference on “Future Environments of North America,” chaired by Darling and Cowan. This same cohort also worked together on the creation of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and World Wildlife Fund. The 1983 Royal visit, which focused on wildlife, was no doubt influenced by his long relationship with Prince Philip. With his international network, he promoted the creation of national nature reserves and the International Biological Program identifying a network of representative ecosystems around the world, an idea that laid the groundwork for the Ecological Reserves Program in BC, headed up by his student Bristol Foster.

Another important seed had been planted in Edinburgh in 1953 with Cowan’s introduction to E. Max Nicholson. Nicholson was a naturalist and ornithologist but also an astute administrator who had just started the research council called the Nature Conservancy. He fought to secure stable funding for the sciences – a goal that was nudging Cowan towards his own future role as an administrator. When asked at age 90 why he spent the last 25 years in administration, Cowan responded, “Good question. Because I liked to make things happen and that’s the way to make them happen.” These behind the scenes activities were what won him the International Conservationist of the Year Award in 1979.

Ian McTaggart Cowan travel journal (1952-1953) : Scotland 02
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