Friday, 27 May 2005
The Daily Telegraph
Derek Ratcliffe, who died on Monday aged 75, was the most influential British naturalist of his generation; he was the first to link the decline of birds of prey with agricultural pesticides and was the architect of the 1977 Nature Conservation Review, which identified the most important wildlife habitats in Britain.
Ratcliffe was also the well-informed and outspoken civil servant who took on the powerful forestry lobby in the 1980s and effectively persuaded the government to halt the tax-breaks that made possible the afforestation of the wild Flow Country in northern Scotland.
At a time when most ecologists are specialists, Ratcliffe's mastery of a broad range of subjects was remarkable. He was one of the great ornithologists, a world authority on the peregrine falcon, as well as an incomparable nest-finder. He was an equally accomplished plant ecologist, a pioneer of methods of describing and classifying wild vegetation and an authority on peat bogs.
A day in the field with Ratcliffe was an extraordinary experience. He seemed to know everything and miss nothing. But he was also good company, a kind and generous friend and an amusing, sometimes waspish, raconteur.
Ratcliffe's quietly-spoken manner concealed a deep-rooted sense of anger at the widespread destruction of his beloved uplands by drainage, tree-planting and over-grazing. As chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy Council in the 1970s and 1980s, he was an unconventional and troublesome civil servant but a first-rate lobbyist, persuading the compromise-inclined quango to stand up for nature.
In Nature Conservation in Britain (1984), Ratcliffe publicly reminded government that the conservation of nature was less a matter of science than a value judgement, and that it deserved the same consideration in a civilised society as historic buildings and works of art.
The report described in horrifying detail how agricultural intensification had damaged or destroyed the wildlife value of 95 per cent of lowland grasslands since 1935. Some 80 per cent of the sheepwalks of chalk or Jurassic limestone country had been significantly damaged, largely by conversion to arable or improved grassland; around a third of hedgerows had been uprooted, and half of the lowland fens, valleys or basin mires had been lost or damaged through drainage operations, reclamation for agriculture and chemical enrichment of drainage water.
Ratcliffe won the argument decisively but was shown little gratitude. Not afraid of making high-powered enemies, and regarded as irritating grit in a well-oiled machine, he was denied an honour by the state.
Derek Almey Ratcliffe was born in London on July 9 1929. His family moved to Carlisle eight years later and Ratcliffe always regarded himself as a northerner. As a member of Carlisle's Natural History Society, he found a mentor in Ernest Blezard, curator of natural history at the local museum. Blezard taught him the importance of accurate field records and the pleasures of "seeking after knowledge". In his company, Ratcliffe became an adept climber and hill-walker in search of birds. He made a practice of scribbling on eggs with an indelible marker pen to make them valueless to collectors.
The young Derek attended the local grammar school and won a scholarship to Sheffield University where he read Botany, obtaining a First in 1950. After graduating, he was offered a bursary from the newly-established Nature Conservancy to study upland plant communities. He enrolled for a doctorate at Bangor under Paul Richards, using techniques developed in Europe to relate natural vegetation to its physical environment. In his spare time he would go off on his bicycle studying mosses.
After National Service as an Army education instructor, Ratcliffe was offered a congenial, if intimidating, job with Nature Conservancy in Edinburgh to extend his studies of Welsh mountain vegetation to the whole of the Scottish Highlands. The survey took him to every corner of the Scottish hills, where he systematically recorded flowers, mosses and lichens, as well as the soil, in thousands of sample plots. In the process he discovered many plants in new places, perhaps the most famous being his record of the very rare rocky cinquefoil growing just beneath a peregrine's nest in Sutherland. Until Ratcliffe's arrival the bird had scared off any botanist that approached too near.
By the time his work was published as Plant Communities of the Scottish Highlands (jointly written with Donald McVean) in 1962, the 32-year-old Ratcliffe was probably the most experienced hill naturalist in Britain. The work is a masterpiece of ecological description, and enabled Scottish vegetation to be compared with that of Europe for the first time.
By this time he had begun the work that made him famous, a nationwide study of the peregrine falcon. Though the falcon stood accused of massacring racing pigeons, Ratcliffe found that it was in fact "in the middle of a headlong crash in numbers", and had declined to less than half of its pre-war population. More alarmingly, it was failing to breed successfully.
Ratcliffe discovered the reason by comparing the weight of eggs from old collections with the addled eggs he was finding. The shells had grown substantially thinner and had become more prone to cracking. Moreover, they contained residues of agricultural pesticides. His meticulous study of the effects of pesticides on these birds (which he later extended to golden eagles, merlins and other raptors) has become a classic, and made the peregrine an icon of nature conservation.
The 1977 Nature Conservation Review, which was edited and largely written by Ratcliffe, drew on his knowledge of Britain's wild places. Although it had originally been intended as a "shopping list" of nature reserves, Ratcliffe and his helpers produced the cornerstone document of nature conservation for the rest of the century.
In 1970 Ratcliffe had been promoted to deputy science director of Nature Conservancy, and three years later to chief scientist of the reorganised Nature Conservancy Council (NCC). Until his retirement in 1989 he headed the council's programme of commissioned research and provided it with the science that underpinned its work.
Beyond his formal role, Ratcliffe was easily the outstanding intellectual force in the NCC at that time. He was behind the work on habitat loss that persuaded Margaret Thatcher's government to pass the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, which provided improved protection for SSSIs.
He also edited the meticulously researched reports which exposed the environmental damage being caused by tax-breaks for forestry, and made the case for preserving the Flow Country as a world-class wilderness. Such work smacked suspiciously of zeal, and in July 1989, just a week after Ratcliffe's retirement, the then Environment Secretary, Nicholas Ridley, announced the breakup of the NCC into three, more compliant, bodies. Ratcliffe saw it as a betrayal, but he never did hold politicians or placemen in high regard.
In retirement, Ratcliffe wrote a series of books, and, with his wife Jeanette, made an annual birdwatching pilgrimage to Lapland. The book of his travels, Lapland: A Natural History, comes out in August. He finished his last book, about the southern uplands of Scotland, just four days before suffering a fatal heart attack in his sleep while on the way to Norway.
His wife survives him.
- The Daily Telegraph
Return to the Bulletin
RETURN TO COMPLETE SITE INDEX
© Canadian Peregrine Foundation