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Hugh Synge obituary

You can read this article in The Guardian by Peter Marren, with contributions by IUCN’s Global Director, Dr Jane Smart, here

Hugh Synge
In 2007, Hugh Synge was voted one of the 20 most influential British conservationists by BBC Wildlife magazine

Botanist and conservationist who was one of the founders of the UK’s leading wild plant charity, Plantlife

The botanist Hugh Synge, who has died of cancer aged 67, was a roving ambassador for wild plants. In 2007, he was voted one of the 20 most influential British conservationists by BBC Wildlife magazine.

While on the staff of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the 1970s, he helped to compile the first Red Data Book of plants. Published in 1979, co-edited with Gren Lucas, this was a landmark publication that assembled for the first time detailed case histories of plant species to explain why so many of them were vanishing.

In 1982 Hugh was invited to design and develop a joint plant conservation programme for the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the then World Wildlife Fund (WWF). He drew up plans that included the creation of the umbrella body now known as the Botanic Gardens Conservation International, a global network linking the world’s botanic gardens, as well as a partnership with the World Health Organisation on the conservation of medicinal plants.

With the Danish botanist Ole Hamann, he led the implementation of the programme until 1989. At the same time, he was hired by the European commission to help draft the botanical sections of the EU Habitats Directive, which aims to conserve a wide range of species and their natural habitats.

Although his approach was multinational, Hugh felt that for Britain to be an influence overseas, it needed to set an example at home. He was one of the founders of Britain’s premier wild plant charity, Plantlife, which works to raise the profile of plants, to celebrate their beauty and to protect their future, and oversaw the steps that led to its launch in 1990.

In that year, Hugh became a freelance consultant. With John Akeroyd, he co-founded the magazine Plant Talk which sought to publicise plants and their conservation throughout the world. As its editor, Hugh needed to reinvent himself, mastering the arts of electronic typesetting and page layout, while also coaxing the world’s best botanists to give of their best for minimal pay. Plant Talk ran successfully for 11 years and 44 quarterly issues.

Early in his freelance career, Hugh had taken a master’s degree in business administration, and in 2006 decided to put his ideals into practice by setting up Soltrac, a solar energy power company. He also set up and chaired Nadder Community Energy, a project close to his heart, in which solar energy income was used to assist his home village of Tisbury, Wiltshire, and surrounding villages.

Hugh was born in Woking, Surrey, the elder son of Margaret (nee Chenevix-Trench) and Patrick Synge. Botany was always likely to be his chosen career: his father was a well-known botanical writer and plant-hunter, and the long-term editor of the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society. Literary ability ran in the family, too; his father’s cousin was JM Synge, the Anglo-Irish poet and playwright.

Hugh was educated at Rugby school (not an experience he enjoyed) and graduated with a BSc in horticulture at Wye College, a London University instituion that was based in Kent, from where he joined the herbarium at Kew as a volunteer.

His knowledge of plants was extensive, and he was a keen gardener and horticulturist. Like his father, he specialised in rare lilies, which he managed to cultivate on the unyielding clay soil of his Wiltshire home.

Hugh was hard-working, imbued with a quiet charm, reserved, fastidious, and with a careful, concise delivery. He set and expected high standards. He had persistence, allied to a stubborn streak, and an equally necessary sense of optimism. He was at the centre of a web of contacts from around the world, and had many associates and friends, though perhaps few close ones.

Akeroyd, with whom he collaborated on botanical projects over nearly 40 years, felt he was a difficult person to know well.

Hugh is survived by his younger brother, Robert.

 Arthur Hugh Millington Synge, botanist and conservationist, born 4 August 1951; died 4 August 2018

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