Guest Blog – Today should be Derek Ratcliffe’s National Peregrine Day by Stuart Housden

Derek Ratcliffe on Ben Armine
Derek Ratcliffe on Ben Armine

Stuart Housden writes: On 21st April 1945, seventy years ago, Derek Ratcliffe climbed to his first peregrine’s nest in the north Pennines. He was then a schoolboy at Carlisle Grammar School, but described that day in his memoir In Search of Nature as his ‘red letter day’. In fact, he was almost killed, as the nest was in a fearsome precipice, but undeterred, a month later he was in the Lakeland fells where he located three more peregrine nests. After much searching in the field and scouring the scattered literature, Derek concluded that the Lake District had, in the late 1940s, about 30 pairs of peregrines as well as 70 pairs of ravens.

Two years later, aged just 18, Derek published his first essay in the school magazine The Carliol giving insightful observations of ravens and peregrines. Awarded a school prize, it ended thus:
Many are the days I have spent in search of all kinds of birds throughout various types of country – wood, plain, marsh, river, estuary and moor – yet it is the mountains which make the strongest appeal. Not for one moment has this lure of the wild diminished or abated, rather it has strengthened throughout the years, and may the birds always exist to lend additional charm and attraction to the hills of home.

Years later of course Derek published the definitive work on the Peregrine itself – a Poyser Monograph.

From these modest but thoughtful beginnings, Derek emerged to become arguably one of Britain’s greatest naturalists of the 20th century, and certainly the prime architect of so much of nature conservation in post war Britain.

9781904078593Today, a special book is published in honour of Derek’s many contributions. Nature’s Conscience: The Life and Legacy of Derek Ratcliffe (edited by Des Thompson, Hilary Birks and John Birks, and published by Langford Press) has 30 chapters on the many facets of Derek’s life. I wrote one of them, and as I did so I was constantly reminded off the monumental efforts Derek and colleagues put into protecting nature. Their weapons were evidence, dogged determination and building partnerships of like-minded individuals. Evidence was a tool to argue for change. Changes of policy and public perceptions about human impacts on nature were vital.

It was, after all, Derek who proved the disastrous effects of pesticides on peregrines and other birds-of-prey, who came up with a system of defining the best places for wildlife in Britain, who led the fight against afforestation of the uplands, and who ensured that nature conservation was led by sound ecological science and not value judgements. His knowledge of the landscape was encyclopaedic, and he was equally expert on raptors and waders, mosses and peat-bogs, alpine plants and mountain ecology. There was hardly a corner of Britain where he had not visited, walked, and above all observed. He was a fearless defender of nature, and quite prepared to expose the flaws in the arguments used by those who would prefer to compromise, or worse still, ignore the needs of the natural world. Though quiet and unassuming, and almost unknown outside nature conservation and scientific circles, he was greatly admired for his wide expertise, scientific integrity and steady flow of published work.

In the Foreword to the book, Professor Sir John Lawton writes: “In a world where too often nature struggles to survive, the Peregrine is emblematic of recovery and improving fortunes – and we have Derek Ratcliffe to thank for that.

Amen to that. I think we should designate 21st of April Derek Ratcliffe’s national peregrine day. Without Derek we would have far fewer peregrines and other raptors. With the many assaults on our raptors we need more champions like Derek. Get the book and be inspired. There is just the chance that someone will pick up the 600+ pages tome, read it and then strive to make a difference – as Derek did.

Stuart_photoStuart Housden is the Director of the RSPB in Scotland.

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12 Replies to “Guest Blog – Today should be Derek Ratcliffe’s National Peregrine Day by Stuart Housden”

  1. Most of his Peregrine work in Cumbria was with Geoff Horn. Hope he his mentioned!

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  2. Thanks for initiating a trip down memory lane. I had the summer of a lifetime as Derek's field assistant in N. Scotland for the !971 Peregrine survey.

    Got the job when the late Ken Smith had to pull out due to illness. Spent 3 months living in the back of a Morris 1000 van. Visited 122 Peregrine eyries (or historically known sites) north of the Great Glen, then on to Orkney and Shetland. Met tons of legendary Scottish birders/naturalists on the way, one of whom, Bobby Tulloch, took me to see a nesting pair of Snowy Owl.

    I only met Derek the once., when he 'debriefed' me after the trip. So I'm looking forward to a good read about the man and his legacy.

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    1. I've been eagerly looking forward to this book for ten years or so

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  3. When William Wilkinson was Chairman of the Nature Conservancy Council he told me, over a drink or two, that working alongside Derek Ratcliffe (then NCC Chief Scientist) was probably the greatest perk of the job. He said he found him a constant source of inspiration amid the daily turmoil of bureaucracy. Richard Porter

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  4. Good stuff Stuart, and both interesting and sad to reflect that any 15 year-old schoolboy climbing to his 1st peregrine’s nest nowadays, in order to experience such a ‘red letter day’ of his own, would likely be recorded, reported, hunted down and subjected to a rather harrowing ordeal at the hands of the authorities. The ability to learn and have that precious spark ignited by experiencing nature up close and personal, is one of the sadder losses of individual freedom over the course of my lifetime.

    Indeed I remember discussing this very issue with Derek in June 1990 at a campsite in Northern Norway where we were both staying while mounting separate personal bird-watching and photographic expeditions there - in my case because it had simply become too bureaucratic, trying and wearisome for the amateur to do so in my native Scotland. In Fennoscandia, the freedom to roam, observe and photograph nature, responsibly, was still possible and proved a great draw to us both.

    Looking forward to reading the book and I hope that the late great DN-T gets his fair share of the credit for helping unlock access to much of the raw material that allowed Derek and others to prove the disastrous effects of pesticides on peregrines and other birds.

    Finally, I wonder exactly what Derek was photographing on Ben Armine that day?

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  5. In reply to John Miles's comment, a copy of the book is on its way to Geoff Horn (or it may have reached him by now). Geoff is mentioned in the book. In answer to Keith Crowiesen, yes Desmond Nethersole-Thompson's contributions and stimulation are mentioned several times and Desmond is illustrated three times, as is William Wilkinson whose key role in the Flow Bog battle is discussed in detail in one of the book's chapters. I am sure that you all find much of interest to you in the book.John Birks

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    1. John - thank you very much and I am looking forward to reading this massive book too.

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  6. I never met Derek Ratcliffe but I read and re-read his books which give me great pleasure. His book Lapland a Natural History is a particular favourite.

    I very much look forward to reading Nature’s Conscience: The Life and Legacy of Derek Ratcliffe - I had it on pre-order from NHBS and is on its way to me - it is available from the Book Depository for <£20 incl postage which must be the bargain of 2015.

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