Toby Spall 1954-2020

RMRG has lost its Chairman and stalwart member, Toby Spall, at the too young age of 66. This is a review of his Rye Meads career and contribution.

Toby Spall 1954-2020

Toby Spall (Sarah Harris)

Sadly we have to report the death of one of our longest standing ringers, Toby Spall, from heart failure after a short illness. This tribute was penned by Alan Harris and Roger Emmens.

Many who have been to ringing demonstrations at Rye Meads will have encountered Toby Spall. A friendly, gentle, good humoured man who had a talent for explaining things, he has been a stalwart of the Rye Meads Ringing Group for almost 52 years.

Although he left school with few qualifications, he had an enquiring mind and was very widely read. He was great company and liked nothing better than to sit and talk about birds.

Toby Spall holdeing two drake Shovelers
Toby with two drake Shovelers

He was an excellent ringer with a gift for knowing where to put a net, a competent birder and a better all round naturalist than most. Most of all he was stoical, patient, and he would put the time in to any particular aspect of ringing that took his interest, often slowly but surely accruing a surprising total for a species – Green Sandpipers, wintering Chiffchaffs, ducks in cold wintry weather, Meadow Pipits, Swallow roosts, and most recently, Goldfinches all received his attention over the years. And he didn’t just want to ring lots of birds, he had a genuine interest in what he could learn from ringing and handling them.

A very skilled nest finder, nothing excited him more than the breeding season: he was always keen to make a start, even in February he was out searching for the first Long-tailed Tit nests, and then as the spring progressed, his beloved Sedge Warblers, a few years ago contributing an article to BTO News on how to find their nests.

He didn’t travel much in search of birds. In his early years, a trip to the Cairngorms in winter to try to find Ptarmigans, regular visits to Norfolk (often sleeping in various barns), and occasional holidays to the Mediterrranean looking for his other lifelong interests, butterflies and orchids, as well as birds. In his latter years he made an annual pilgrimage to Spurn for the autumn Blackbird migration, and became well known to regulars there; and as he became less mobile, he developed a keen interest in moths.

The main focus of his birding has always been Rye Meads. He was very proud of the Rye Meads Ringing Group and of being not just a member, but its Chairman. He liked telling people about our legacy of training and our contribution to ornithology, how many of our people have gone on to run bird observatories or ringing projects all over the world. And he did really care, and worry, about the birds.

He certainly had his demons, particularly those found in bottles, and a lifelong heavy smoking habit probably contributed most to his early death at the age of 66. But for all the times wasted on such indulgences, he nevertheless has left substantial legacies of knowledge about the birds of Rye Meads, and of a lifetime of contribution to the success of the Rye Meads Ringing Group. Toby, we will miss you.

He leaves a widow, Sue, and a son, Michael, from his first marriage.


  1. So sorry to read that Toby has left us. He was my best friend for a number of years at school and was good fun to be with. He had a keen interest in birds and butterflies even then and it is lovely to see that it stayed with him all his life. I haven’t seen him for a long while, but am so sad that his presence is no longer with us, I shall miss him. Condolences to his Wife and Son. Nigel Brooke

  2. I was also at school with Toby and along with Mike Harris & Dave Carr they were the one’s who cared and understood about nature long before it became fashionable
    RIP Toby

  3. Just heard this sad news Toby taught me to ring birds when I was young I have such fond memories of this time in my life he was a great teacher I also remember a mallard omelet he cooked at rye meads after the bird had deserted the nest.

  4. Late to read this sad news but was also there with Tom Sams and have fond memories of Toby and his knowledge, enthusiasm and sense of humour – I probably only recognise him with a smile on his face!
    I recall one night after a day ringing and a beer or several in Hoddesdon the group of us cycling home- one front and one rear bike light between us. Whoever was in front with the front light missed the bend in the road and went off into a ditch; and as the rest were following, so did we all!!! Rest in peace Toby and thank you for everything you did for me, the group and wildlife

    • Andy, there seem to be so many stories like that about Toby, I wish I could assemble them in a book! Thanks for the memory. I remember him making tea in the ringing hut on a Primus stove, using water collected from the hut roof. It had an interesting bitumen taste…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to posts

Provide your details below, and we'll send you an email whenever there's a new post for you to enjoy. You can unsubscribe at any time.

By subscribing you agree to receive email notifications of new blog posts and other relevant email communications. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Please also consider becoming a Friend to receive our regular Bulletins and three yearly Reports. Details are on our Support us page.