Peter Scott and the Birth of Modern Conservation, Chris Moore, Quiller Publishing, £20.
Review: Simon Hacker
Like it or not, we live in an age of iconoclasm where nobody’s sacred, especially if they’re dead or a bit of a Matt Hancock. And so it is that every now and then a biography lands to deliver a gentle slap to whatever cosy impressions we had of the people we like to think of as, perish the worn-out word, our ‘heroes’.
When it comes to a Gloucestershire variety, Sir Peter Scott certainly left large waders to fill. After all, if it hadn’t been for this polymath (a word dished out liberally but rarely more justified) our list of cracking days out within a short radius of Stroud would lack one glittering prize.
If you’ve somehow yet to meander into the boondocks beyond yonder A38, Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Reserve is, by any season, a joy. You can test the durability of the skin on your palm by hand-feeding geese and swans (begin with the former, train up to the latter), paddle your own canoe and get lost in a labyrinth of waterways.
After coffee and cake among loitering corvidae, maybe test your gag reflex on the effluvia of flamingos or hang out in an Arctic research hut, a replica of WWT far-flung wildfowl research which might soon double up as an acclimatisation unit for winter in energy-crisis Britain. Slimbridge has birds that burble like comedy instruments, birds that walk like a duck but sometimes aren’t, shy birds you might never see yet thrill to try and discover, and, of course, 360 degrees of fly-by thrills. For aerial antics, it’s all the fun of Heathrow with none of the flygskam.
I get my unabashed, twitching fanaticism for Slimbridge off my chest early, because Sir Peter Scott, the man who made this place possible (while also achieving many milestones along the way), falls safely into the category of conservation hero. When he died, just before his eightieth birthday in 1989, his legacy was measurably more than that of his infamous father whose doomed journey to the Antarctic overshadowed his life.
But conservation is a slippery word. We read what we like into it: prima facie, it’s now all about preservation for posterity, protecting species that otherwise might (and often do) vanish beneath the inescapable tread of mankind. Dig deeper and the word has roots which may ruffle the feathers of our modern understanding.
Chris Moore doesn’t shy away from exploring what conservation has and did mean in this dissection. It’s well structured, well researched and well written. There are many words out there already about one of our county’s defining people; without Scott and his legacy it is unimaginable to picture Britain’s wildfowl and wetlands and see them in such health as they now are. But as an inextricable element of Scott’s story, the culture he emerged from to make his great contribution isn’t airbrushed away.
By the time Scott attended Cambridge, he was already an avowed naturalist with a passion for all things outdoors. He joined his college’s beagle pack, hunting hares on foot, where he met a fellow student who suggested he come on a trip to Sandringham to shoot snipe. Scott, Moore writes, shot his first specimen and decided the kill was a fluke, but shooting birds, from that moment, ignited a passion that would take him far and wide. On the Fens, “Any type of bird was a suitable quarry; the list of birds they shot included wigeon, teal, coot, goosander, lapwing and redshank.” His passion for taking aim became so compulsive his success at Cambridge came into jeopardy.
It would be some time later, Moore writes, before he gave up shooting, “but now the lure was not just the thrill of the hunt; his desire to kill wildfowl was inextricably linked with his love for the birds and the wild places in which they lived.”
To many of us now, living in an age of conservation when the definition has shifted to something far more clear cut, Scott’s later admission that there was “nothing sentimental” about his regard for living birds may trigger a fresh perspective on this man’s legacy. And though he eventually left his guns to cool, Moore’s extensive detailing of the creation of Slimbridge and the broader WWT reveals a pragmatism that drew on Scott’s connections to the hunting and shooting world.
Before its boundary ditches were dug out by German prisoners of war, Slimbridge was negotiated, in 1946, as a leasehold from the Berkeley Estate, the landowner retaining the title to this day. At the signing, the estate stipulated ongoing access to allow up to eight days per year of shooting, and the issue of access remains in the headlines: in 2019, staff at the centre were reported to be ‘outraged’ when the Berkeley Hunt followed a scent that took hounds across the site, birds scattering in the hounds’ wake.
For anyone witnessing such optics, the clash between modern and traditional notions of conservation couldn’t be clearer and this new work blows away much of the mist that surrounds Scott’s life. Like many of his treasured species, he certainly migrated.
But the work also delivers something stunning which, to all who visit Slimbridge and know the geography of the place, will come as an almighty shock. At the risk of a plot-spoiler, I’ll tell you here. Scott’s second wife Philippa was driven in a car over the half mile of lane from the canal to the Trust’s entrance at no less than 108mph. No matter how exciting a visit to Slimbridge might be, it’s a record best left uncontested.