Remembering Derek Ratcliffe

The recent publication of Nature’s Conscience: The Life and Legacy of Derek Ratcliffe is a timely reminder of one of our foremost environmentalists. Derek immersed himself in nature, and when he highlighted the disastrous effects of pesticides on peregrines he effectively raised the country’s consciousness on how pesticides can carry significant environmental impacts.

Nature's Conscience

It was on 21st April 1945 that Derek, aged 16, climbed to his first peregrine’s nest in the north Pennines. In fact, he was almost killed reaching the nest, and hobbled back to catch his train home after one of the rubber soles of his shoes peeled back, and had to be cut off. Undeterred a month later he was in the Lakeland fells where he located three more peregrine nests.

Two years later he published his first essay in his school’s magazine detailing his observations of ravens and peregrines. A literary as well as a natural history star was born; the essay won a prize. It ended with an affirmation that he was smitten with nature… “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.”

Derek Ratcliffe

Derek Ratcliffe

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. He retired as Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy Council (forerunner to the country conservation agencies including SNH) in 1989, having led the production of the two-volume A Nature Conservation Review and the SSSI selection guidelines, both still bedrocks of conservation work today. The flow of work was remarkable. To the iconic Poyser book series he contributed The Raven and The Peregrine, and to the New Naturalist Series he gave us Lakeland and Galloway and The Borders (with a foreword by SNH’s Des Thompson). His 1977 book, Highland Flora, was a wonderful addition to our understanding of the plantlife of Scotland.

There was hardly a corner of Britain where he had not walked, and above all observed. The writer and chronicler of the New Naturalist book series, Peter Maren, comments: “Derek was a naturalist’s naturalist. He was never anyone’s lackey but stood up for nature forcefully and from the heart. His knowledge was bottomless and his integrity unimpeachable. To me he was a wildlife hero. I am proud to have known him and to have been his colleague.”

His career defining moment arrived when he proved and documented the disastrous effects of pesticides on peregrines and other birds-of-prey: Thanks to Derek and a remarkable team of scientists and policy advisers we can now enjoy seeing many birds of prey – not least peregrines in our towns and cities.

In the Foreword to the new 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.”

Derek’s entire life was spent working in the nature conservation field. He was deputy director of the Nature Conservancy from 1970 to 1973, and appointed chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy Council in 1973. Several staff in SNH have fond memories of working with Derek. Everyone comments that he was quiet, modest, diligent, energetic and caring as much of colleagues and friends as of nature. Professors John and Hilary Birks, both botanists, and with Des editors of the book, remark: “In preparing this book, we have been astonished at the breadth and depth of Derek’s work – an exceptional legacy, and without his influence we would not have the level of protection afforded nature in the UK today. Derek was probably the greatest ecological polymath of the 20th century.”

Derek Ratcliffe scaling a Birch  tree to inspect a Merlin’s  brood of two 3–4-day-old chicks in an old Carrion Crow’s nest in the foothills of Skiddaw in the Lake District. The picture was taken on 9 June 1989, a month before his retirement. Photo by Des Thompson

Derek Ratcliffe scaling a Birch tree to inspect a Merlin’s brood of two 3–4-day-old chicks in an old Carrion Crow’s nest in the foothills of Skiddaw in the Lake District. The picture was taken on 9 June 1989, a month before his retirement. Photo by Des Thompson

What a remarkable person. With a bicycle, binoculars and notebook, Derek launched forth to make history. Imbued with humble greatness from an early age, Derek Ratcliffe stands out as an inspiration for our budding generation of young naturalists.

Nature’s Conscience: The Life and Legacy of Derek Ratcliffe (edited by Des Thompson, Hilary Birks and John Birks) is published by Langford Press: For further information see: www.eecrg.uib.no/NewsItems/DAR.htm

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