Tuesday, 18 July 2017

How I became an RSPB Warden.


Furze wren or Dartford warbler.
60 years ago, England was a different place. I lived in Southampton at that time, an important port that had largely been flattened by successive air raids. Rebuilding of the town had only just begun but the harbour was fully operational with great rows of ocean liners owned by the P&O, Cunard and Union Castle Lines moored up at the quays. Cargo such as Fyfe's bananas, Jaffa Oranges and cut timber came in from all over the world. Flying boats took off from the water and flew over my school. They might be going to Kenya where they would land on Lake Naivasha, or Uganda where they would use Lake Victoria, and then perhaps on to refuel in the Seychelles on their way to India. I had no idea that my future career would eventually take me down those same flight-lines.

There were jobs to be had for sure; that's why we moved there. My dad worked on the ships installing and repairing cine projectors and sound systems as well as working on tape recorders, radios and the latest televisions. Business was booming, but I wanted to work outdoors in the countryside.

In the mid 1960's, most children left school at 16 to find work. My "careers teacher" had probably done his military service and gone straight into teaching, then attended a training course at some point. I told him I'd like to be a game-keeper and he countered that I'd make a good policeman like my grandad, mostly because I was tall.

The New Forest was on my doorstep so I wrote to the Forestry Commission in Brockenhurst. They never replied. I probably wrote to the wrong office; I hadn't a clue what I was doing really. Fortunately my O-level grades were good enough for me to carry on at school and I eventually went to be trained as a teacher in Bristol.

My interest in the outdoors never waned. I studied to be a geography teacher but we also had to take a different subsidiary subject each year and I chose to start with natural science. Miss Jelley taught us how to set up a nature table, make plaster casts, identify plants and animals by using keys and all the things I would later do as head of environmental studies at a big primary school on Salisbury Plain.

Meanwhile, our geography department took us on a field week to Devon where I teamed up with a mature student who said he had been in the SAS. He told me how he had been parachuted into the bush dressed as a Massai warrior during the Kenyan Mau Mau uprising. I wasn't sure I believed him at the time, but I played along as he had a pair of 8x30 military binoculars that had cross-hairs in the lenses. You had to focus each eyepiece individually, which made them slow to set up, but they were quite literally an eye-opener for me. They were in colour! Most books and almost all tv at the time was in black and white, so I had only seen close-ups of wildlife in monochrome. I became a proper bird-watcher on that trip, seeing my first fulmars, buzzards and peregrines up close.

As a young teacher in Wiltshire I soon discovered a network of other birdwatchers and naturalists and became aware of the wider world of nature conservation. That's when I found the RSPB.

Every year, near Christmas, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds came to Salisbury with a film show and a van-load of sales goods. I took my class along to see the new crop of films made by the society's own film department and I bought calendars, cards and wrapping paper, illustrated by the likes of Charles Tunnicliffe and Robert Gillmor. I was inspired to become a member and I started a Young Ornithologists Club in School.

Old RSPB logo on a car badge.
At that point the only paid member of RSPB staff I had seen was a man called Trevor Gunton. He was the development officer who ran the film shows and toured every village hall in the country giving slide shows in his spare time. Trevor would go on to set up the regional members groups and take the society's membership past the million mark. We are still in touch as he is a volunteer on the nature reserve where I work today.

I was also involved in the local Natural History Society and the newly formed Wiltshire Ornithological Society. I once joined a group of elderly ladies for a field trip to look for orchids on the military ranges and we were led by a young man called Peter Newberry from the local Wildlife Trust, which was based in Marlborough. Peter's version of orchid hunting turned out to be an extreme sport with a bit of botany thrown in. Peter had an old Landrover that he took up, down and across the steepest of slopes and gave us all a good scare. "Newbs" went on to work at the Lodge where I found out that cars were a bit of a passion. He used to study woodcocks in the local forests by setting up mist nets across the rides and forest tracks at dusk. He would then drive his route in an open-top sports car that was so low he could drive it under the nets. This was at night, with the lights off. I think he eventually won the trophy for fastest run down the drive at the Lodge, achieving over 100 mph. It was probably as a result of this that the drive now has some pretty fierce "sleeping policemen" installed.


On a birding trip to Cotswold Water Park I met an extremely tall young man with a shock of unruly dark hair who was throwing a drag line out into the lakes to collect weed samples. This was my first encounter with a proper scientist who wasn't a teacher. His name was Dr. James Cadbury and he would later become the Head of Science at the Lodge. He is undoubtedly the best all-round naturalist I have ever met. Our paths would cross many times, including in Seychelles where his father Christopher had bought two islands and set them up as nature reserves.

As an isolated member of the RSPB, the arrival of "Birds" magazine was my window into a world of bird watching, photography, artwork and the politics of conservation; more than that, it featured real people who had proper jobs as full time staff. One edition of the magazine featured an article on Dartford warblers. These "furze wrens" are the shape of a long-tailed tit with the colours of port, cranberries and heather stems and they live mainly on spiders. In those days they were confined to the the New Forest and part of the Dorset coast near Corfe Castle. The article featured pictures of the birds and their habitat, but my eye was caught by a photo of a man with a petrol-powered vacuum cleaner on his back. He was sucking the bugs out of a gorse bush to see what was there for a warbler to eat.  Young Colin Bibby was a researcher from the Edward Grey Institute (part of Oxford University) and he would follow James Cadbury as head of Research at the Lodge and later at BirdLIfe International in Cambridge.

I would never have been a good scientist, but wouldn't it be amazing to work alongside these people?

Another copy of "Birds" featured an RSPB reserve called Leighton Moss. Among the pictures of otters and bitterns one photo caught my eye because it had a man in it. That man was John Wilson and he was cutting back the reed-bed using a two wheeled Allen scythe. He was an RSPB Warden.

It took me until the mid 70s to discover all this. A career in nature conservation simply didn't exist in the 60s, though there were retired colonels and brigadiers who pioneered the way using their military pensions to get by. You could find them in the National Trust and the fledgeling societies and trusts that were springing up. They would employ ex-servicemen to work for them, and they in turn would eventually employ civilians like me.

Looking back to the 50s and 60s, it was hard not to be aware of at least one conservationist and that was Sir Peter Scott. He was the son of Robert Falcon Scott, known as "Scott of the Antarctic", and his mother was a famous sculptor, but I first knew him as the man who started the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge. My parents took me there several times and I loved it. I demanded that they buy me one of  Scott's paintings, but they didn't; £30 was a lot of money back then. Never mind though, I had fifty "Peter Scotts" on a set of Brooke-Bond tea cards called "Wildlife in Danger".

This cover of Bird Magazine
led to people resigning.
Is this supposed to be art?
I loved it.
As I progressed through school, I would encounter more of Peter Scott's paintings and his books, but for most people it was his pioneering broadcasts that brought wildlife and nature conservation into our living rooms through a small wooden box containing a grey cathode ray tube. He paved the way for Hans and Lotte Hass and Jacques Cousteau to show us the underwater world. Armand and Michaela Denis would take us on an African safari every week and James Fisher would take us around London Zoo. Eventually a young David Attenborough would take us on Zoo Quests to New Guinea and Madagascar.

This was all great stuff, but in a class-ridden society, these well-spoken, highly educated and wealthy people seemed distant and extremely privileged. Their world was only open to us as voyeurs. We couldn't join in and had about as much chance of going on safari or SCUBA diving as going to the moon. Or, at least, that's what I thought at the time. But seeing a photo of John Wilson, RSPB Warden, changed all that for me. I could do that.

As an educator, the logical way-in would be as a teacher-naturalist. I took several courses in Field Biology and got a degree from the Open University, then my chance came when Sir Peter Scott built a fabulous new Wildfowl Trust centre at Arundel and I became its first education officer. There I would rub shoulders with the Scotts and all sorts of famous people, including David Attenborough, Bill Oddie and even Prince Charles. My Mum was thrilled, but I learned the most from my colleagues and I started to network with other organisations including the Wildlife Trust, the RSPCA, Keep Britain Tidy, the World Wildlife Fund, and of course, the RSPB. I was now a professional charity worker, specialising in environmental education and wildlife conservation. I could have moved to almost anywhere, but to me the absolute pinnacle of my career would be reached if I could be accepted as an RSPB Warden.

When the warden's job at Vane Farm on Loch Leven came up I just had to apply.

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