Barn Elms © Peter Scott & Keith Shackleton

The Patron Saint Of Conservation

11th September 2009

Sir Peter Scott would have been one hundred years old this month. As a new book, published under the supervision of his widow Lady Philippa Scott, celebrates his art, Jack Watkins look back on a life well-lived…

There can be few British people with an interest in wildlife and the environment, and born in the middle decades of the last century, who were not inspired in some way by Sir Peter Scott. Founding chairman of the World Wildlife Fund (now the WWF), creator of the Severn Wetland Trust (now the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust) and inventor of the IUCN Red Data books which define endangered species, he was also, through his broadcasting and writing, a proselytiser of the wonders of nature to mass audiences at a time when to popularise something did not bring with it the requirement to dumb the subject down.

Sir Peter, who was born one hundred years ago this month, had the inner confidence of a man well-qualified to speak on his subject. He was the son of the ill-fated Antarctic explorer Sir Robert Falcon Scott, who died on his return journey from the South Pole when his son was only three.

The younger Scott was one of those rare people who are able to develop an understanding of science while also retaining an artistic sensibility. He wasn’t a bad sport either, being a champion figure skater, and then a yachtsman, for which he won a Bronze medal at the 1936 Olympics. Later, he became a British gliding champion. But always, it seems, an interest in wildlife was foremost. One of his christening presents, from his godfather, JM Barrie, was a Life Fellowship of the Royal Zoological Society. While the suggestion that he was actually the inspiration for Barrie’s Peter Pan is probably a myth, what is not is the wish that his father had expressed in his last message to home from the Antarctic: “Make the boy interested in Natural History. It is better than games. They encourage it in some schools.”

Here was a son who would live up to his father’s dreams.

At work with his brush, in the cottage at Slimbridge

In paying tribute, back in the 1980s, Sir David Attenborough observed that no-one had done more than Sir Peter to stem the tide of human destruction of the environment. “He saw the dangers fifty years ago when few of us at the time had heard of the words ‘ecology’ or ‘conservation’.” More recently, Attenborough described Scott as the public face of the world conservation movement. “If conservation were to pick one patron saint, I’d say it would be Peter.”

Like many of his generation and background, in his youth he pursued an interest in wildfowling – which, of course, created a paradox. How could someone intensely interested in birdlife also derive pleasure in shooting them? Not until 1932 when, out shooting with a friend, he found himself hoping that the two birds he had just wounded would survive, did he realise that there was more enjoyment to be gained from studying live creatures than there was by trying to kill them.

Henceforth, Scott developed a keen interest in conservation which, it’s been suggested, may have been spurred by a sense of needing to make amends. After the War he established the first ever wetland centre for birds, at Slimbridge, near the River Severn in Gloucestershire. It was to be a centre for the scientific study and conservation of wildfowl, but its creator was particularly attracted by the wild geese that had been flying in from Siberia to the Slimbridge marshes for centuries each autumn, to escape the worst of the Arctic winters.

It was at Slimbridge that Scott established one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of wildfowl anywhere in the world. Among his chief loves were the Bewick’s swans, which he and his family enticed by feeding on the lake outside the living room of their cottage on the estate. It was from here that television documentaries were broadcast, after he had hosted the BBC’s first ever dedicated television wildlife programme.

One goose may look much like another to most of us, but Scott discovered that the Bewick’s swans could be identified by distinctive bill markings, unique to individual birds. He found, in time, that he could recognise four thousand of them by the names he had given them, and he began to record their annual population numbers. There are staff at Slimbridge still who served their entry into the world of bird ecology and conservation under Scott’s avuncular eye, and the records that he initiated are still maintained today.

Peter and Philippa

Scott’s widow, Lady Philippa, continues to live in the cottage and remains an avid observer and recorder of the birds. Earlier this year, a revised edition of The Art of Peter Scott: Images from a Lifetime, with selections and captions by her, was published by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. It is a beautiful book and reminds us that one of the chief means by which Scott managed to waken so many people to the beauty and splendour of wildlife was through his oil paintings and pen and ink drawings.

The illustrations cover the gamut of his incredibly active life. There are childhood drawings, and action paintings of U-boats and battleships from his wartime naval service. One self-portrait, from 1933, depicts him as a huntsman by water in murky light. Heroically handsome though he looks, in later years Scott himself disliked the work because it showed him with a gun. The book shows the design for the original panda logo of the WWF, and even includes a rare Scott venture into the abstract, a work about ‘man’s dilemma in his relationship with nature’. It is the images of the graceful, long-necked geese and swans, flying in formation over marshland or water, however, that remain his most strikingly successful works.

The book ends with a painting that was still on his easel at his death in1989: his vision of what the Barn Elms reservoirs, Barnes, could look like if they became, as was hoped, the WWT’s London Centre. Today, of course, these waters are indeed part of the London Wetland Centre, home to a startling array of birds, so close to the capital’s urban heart. Though he has been gone twenty years now, and his name is probably unfamiliar to a generation of urban dwellers whose first experience of nature may happen at Barnes, Peter Scott’s legacy lives on.

The Art of Peter Scott: Images from a Lifetime is available online at www.wwtonlinebookshop.org.uk or at any of the UK’s nine WWT wetland visitor centres (more info: 01453 891900 or www.wwt.org.uk).

Find Your Local