Mark Smart obituary

<span>Mark Smart at RSPB Berney Marshes in Norfolk, 2002</span><span>Photograph: from family/none</span>
Mark Smart at RSPB Berney Marshes in Norfolk, 2002Photograph: from family/none

If you have ever been to a large RSPB wetland reserve anywhere in the UK, and enjoyed the evocative calls of breeding redshank, snipe, curlew or lapwings, it is very likely that my friend Mark Smart, who has died suddenly aged 56, was involved in some way in directly creating that habitat. His work was formally recognised in 2018 when he was given the national Marsh Award for Wetland Conservation Achievement.

I first met Mark when we were teenagers volunteering with the Wash Wader Ringing Group (WWRG) in the saltmarshes of East Anglia. I was with my bird-obsessed parents, and he had tagged along with his older sister, Allison. This introduction to practical bird conservation sparked a passion for wetlands and wading birds that would lead him into a distinguished career over 30 years with the RSPB.

Mark was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire, to Cyril Smart, a farm worker and herdsman, and his wife, Irena. He drove his first tractor at the age of 12 and was more practical than academic. After leaving Arthur Mellows Village college in Glinton, Cambridgeshire at 16, he went into farming, working on the Barnwell Estate in Northamptonshire, where he became skilled with tractors and large machinery, and qualified as an agricultural mechanic.

His involvement with WWRG continued and developed into a lifelong love of the Wash. He progressed from his first British Trust for Ornithology ringing permit in his teens, allowing him to catch and mark birds for monitoring and research, to holding a cannon-net licence (a very specialised bird-capture method) and becoming a trustee of WWRG.

After being made redundant from the Barnwell Estate in the early 1990s, he saw an opportunity to follow his passion and applied for a job with the RSPB. The organisation quickly recognised Mark’s unique set of skills, with his understanding of the ecology of waders and his practical ability with large diggers. He always knew the right machine for the job, transforming large swathes of fields or meadows back into wet grazing marshes with plenty of scrapes, ponds, channels and mud for waders, ducks and geese to feed, rest and breed.

Mark also had a gift for engaging with people. He was able to bridge any divide between landowners, gamekeepers and conservationists, groups whose conflicting interests sometimes put them at odds with each other. As a mentor, friend and trainer, he nurtured other conservationists with patience and encouragement.

In 1997 he met Jen Keddie, an ornithologist, and they married in 1999. Together with Jen, he fitted in a respectable amateur cycling career with his Norwich club, as well as several wader expeditions to Mauritania, Australia and Delaware Bay in the US. In 2021 the couple bought and renovated a farmhouse in Fife and enjoyed taking care of their spaniels.

He and Jen separated in 2022 and Mark started a relationship with Katherine Puttick.

Mark is survived by Jen, by Katherine and her son, Ewan, and by Allison.