No one who truly knows me could ever suggest that I am uninterested in involving and supporting young people in the field of birding or natural history as a whole. In fact I despair sometimes at the lack of input and support for young people, which seems to be prevalent in some situations. Never the less I am also keenly interested in the history of ornithology and conservation and the efforts put in by individuals from previous generations. After all, as in the case of all fields of activity, we benefit from the steady flow of knowledge that is built by our predecessors, although I guess each generation, and I include my own, often think that it is they that have invented the wheel, so to speak. Because of my interest it was with some pleasure that I recently read the book Birds in a Cage by author Derek Niemann. This book tells the story of how four men in particular dealt with the horror of being confined in Prisoner of War Camps during World War Two by devoting much of their time to their passion for the natural world. The books main focus of attention is on four men, John Buxton, George Waterston, Peter Conder and John Barrett. The book is an excellent read and I won’t go into too much detail here as that may spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it, but who intends to do so. I will say I found it poignant how these men’s lives were in both the short and longer term affected, in some cases physically and certainly in all cases psychologically. I also asked myself the question ‘how many claiming to be bird watchers these days actually watch with the intensity that these men did? In this case all done without the luxury of either modern equipment or communications. Oh, how did we ever cope with out Twitter? Well in fact it’s easy, as I myself prove. These guys couldn’t even rely on an adequate mailing system. Neither did they have any access to optics.
John Buxton (1912-1989) was the only one of the four men who did not go into a lasting career involving conservation in some form. The classic book The Redstart, a monograph in the New Naturalist series, was however a product of the time John Buxton spent watching and monitoring Redstarts during his captivity. During some of this time Buxton’s hands were manacled. The Redstart has been out of print for many years, but is usually available as used copies, at a price. John spent time as warden at Skokholm Bird Observatory in 1939 and married Marjorie the sister of Ronald Lockley. Ronald was the catalyst for the setting up of Bird Observatories in the UK and began the very first UK observatory at Skokholm in 1933. Ronald had many contacts with ornithologists and conservationists including Peter Scott, George Waterson and Julian Huxley and is the author of several books including the monograph Shearwaters which was the result of twelve years study of these birds. During his captivity John Buxton was able to obtain bird rings and ornithological literature from the German ornithologist Erwin Stresemann, a leading ornithologist of the twentieth century. Stresemann was no doubt taking some personal risk with regard this.
George Waterston (1911-1980) was a founder of the Midlothian Ornithologists Club and later the Scottish Ornithological Club. Prior to the Second World War he was also a joint founder of the Bird Observatory on the Isle of May, only the second observatory to open in the UK. George was influenced by the work of Ronald Lockley at Skokholm. Perhaps George’s first love however was Fair Isle. During his period as a POW George had dreams of owning Fair Isle. Maybe not such a wild dream as one might think as he did belong to a well to do family. George was repatriated prior to the end of the war because of serious health problems. On his boat journey to Scotland he passed Fair Isle and one can only guess how poignant that must have been for him in the circumstances. A few years later he realised his dream and he purchased Fair Isle and helped establish the Bird Observatory there. Six years later (1954) he sold the island to the National Trust of Scotland for the same amount he had paid for it. George later become Director of the RSPB in Scotland and is perhaps best known for his work in re-establishing the Osprey in Scotland. The early days of barbed wire protection at Loch Garten are well know and one can only ponder upon George’s possible reflections concerning such security, remembering that not so long before, he himself had been held behind barbed wire. It was George’s idea to open to the public a viewing point at Loch Garten, since when so many people have watched Ospreys at their nest, many of these people perhaps seeing their first Osprey here. It had by necessity been a very secretive operation prior to George’s idea to involve the public. George Waterston was an inspiration to many, including a young man by the name of Roy Dennis, who I have heard talk so highly of George and whose own work with Ospreys is so well known. The names begin to link together like a chain, as another who has worked with Ospreys is a favourite nature artist of mine Keith Brockie, who also of course has strong links to the Isle of May and has produced two (of several) books of his art work completed whilst living on the island, these being Ones Mans Island and Return to One Mans Island. Erwin Stresemann published a paper during the war concerning the birds of Crete and bird migration through the Aegean. George Waterston had been captured at Crete and he provided work from his observations which Stresemann included in his paper. George was the only man from the UK to ever have work included in a German ornithological paper during the course of the Second World War.
Peter Conder (1919-1993) was interested in ornithology from childhood. I think as a rather reserved man Peter was perhaps overawed by his fellow POW bird watchers of whom he was the youngest. During movement between camps he lost much of his written work. In 1947 he too became warden of the Bird Observatory on Skokholm where he studied the Northern Wheatear in particular and is author of a monograph on this species. By 1963 Peter had become director of the RSPB and he remained so until 1975, a period during which membership rose tenfold to 200,000. Land ownership also increased from a minimal amount to 20,000 hectares. Peter saw that the work of the RSPB must be founded upon science and that conservation must recognise the role of politics. Peter was relatively young when he retired from the directorship of the RSPB and he could have gone on for much longer. In stepping down he recognised the need for new blood and ideas in the role. Perhaps there is a lesson for us all there. Peter continued involvement with training and advisory groups.
John Barrett (1913-1999) gained a life long interest in birds by being in the company of John Buxton, George Waterston and Peter Conder. He became warden of Dale Fort Field Centre which included Skokholm Bird Observatory. Dale Fort was established as a centre for the study of marine biology with Skokholm flourishing as a bird observatory. John seems to have regretted that he had been unable to fully engage other POWs in natural history and he was driven to make amends for this. Under his management the field centre gained an international reputation and John supervised many students during his years here. He is perhaps best remembered for his authorship of the Collins Guide to the Seashore which was published in 1958 and remained in print for forty years. Whilst it was a joint authorship with Maurice Yonge, the latter admitted that it was John who had done most of the work on this. Except for visits to see family who had moved abroad, John remained in Pembrokeshire for the rest of his life. He established the Pembrokeshire Countryside Unit in Broad Haven in 1968 and ran a programme of walks and talks along the coastal footpaths. During his guided walks he was accompanied by his dog which he named dog.
AddendumDerek Niemann was editor for the RSPB Magazine for young members. Following on from Birds in a Cage he is now the author of A Nazi in the family: The Hidden Story of an SS Family in Wartime Germany. This book follows Derek Niemann’s discovery that his grandfather was a Nazi and was a cog in the wheel of the workings of the concentration camps. Derek is also author of wildlife books for children and has contributed articles to the Guardian and Wildlife Magazine.