Promoting observation, free range exploration, sense of place and citizen science, through the field notes of a naturalist.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Dr. Bruce Campbell in Gwent

Those well versed in the social history of post war bird watching will know the contribution made by Dr. Bruce Campbell to the development of the BTO and other natural history organisations. Bruce died in January 1993 but left a legacy of a life surrounded by birds and the natural environment. Akin to many of his generation, his knowledge of birds and the countryside was developed through the once common practise of egg collecting and field sports. His book Birdwatcher at Large - Autobiography of an Ornithologist (1979) details some toe curling references to the dispatching of owls and other predators on shooting estates to collecting their eggs, and the frequent killing of all birds including the shooting of a purple sandpiper with a .22 air rifle!! 

It would be easy for us to past judgement on these old style naturalists, but for many, in times before good quality field guides and the Internet were available, knowledge was built on finding, killing and collecting. As Bruce matured he applied his undoubted field skills to the cause of nature conservation taking on roles with the BTO and collecting chairmanships and committee roles with the same motivation that drove him to fill a mahogany cabinet of cotton wool and the eggs of British breeding birds.

Before Bruce was able to secure his first conservation role he had a spell working in south Wales as a teacher  whilst at the same time studying for a doctorate. In 1941 he lived at Court Perrot south of Llandegfedd Reservoir in the Sor Brook valley near to Llandegveth Village. His thesis centred on an ambitious plan to complete a breeding bird survey over the farm's whole 250 acres and to compare with a similar plot in a more industrialised part of south Wales near Caerphilly where he had a teaching job. Some of his census work was helped by the Caerphilly School Field Club and I doubt very much there's now a school in Wales with anything approaching an after school field club!

In Chapter 10 of his autobiography entitled Serious Censuses he details his work at Court Perrot Farm. He talks about its habitats and his nest finding techniques of hot and cold searching. During 1942-7 he claimed he got to know Gwent so well that he estimated the total number of breeding species to be around 100 of which 49 had attempted to breed at Court Perrot. His work was eventually published in the Reports and Transactions of the Cardiff Naturalists' Society, vol 81, 1950-2. A table of all breeding birds between 1942-7 is also produced in his book.

Of the birds he recorded in his study there are some interesting findings. For example grey partridge were more plentiful than pheasant; tree sparrow were present in most years; between 3 and 5 pair of skylark occurred and up to 7 pair of yellowhammer. Other breeding birds of note include turtle dove, yellow wagtail, up to 4 pair of tree pipit and a single lapwing. Interestingly having written up his thesis he came to no earth shattering conclusion, except that industrialisation had impoverished the bird life of the south Wales coalfield. I speculate that should his study be repeated today, with the demise of heavy industry and the intensification of agriculture then results may be different.

Full obituary :

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