Interview: Tony Richardson, chair of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
How did a boy from the London suburbs become one of Gloucestershire’s wildlife champions? Katie Jarvis talks to Tony Richardson, chair of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust
Tony Richardson was in his garden last week – in a field-frilled village on the seams of Nailsworth – when an unfamiliar bird-call took him by surprise. Caught him out completely.
‘Hang on!’ you might think. Tony Richardson, chair of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust? As in: headed up the RSPB in the south-west for more than a decade. Close ally of the (wonderful) Scott family during his many years at Slimbridge.
Can’t be many English birds he doesn’t know!
He replicates the sound for me: zizizizi. A kind of odd static. “It puzzled me,” he frowns. “I’m no expert on bird-calls, but I started learning about them when I was young: recognising birds by their shape and size; how they behave; their characteristics in the field; what a bird sounds like. I heard this and thought: Do you know: I’m not really sure what it is!”
A week later, the same static filled the air… and the penny dropped. A modest little black-capped coal tit had achieved this particular ‘coo’.
Did recognising it give Tony a buzz?
“Absolutely it did. I thought I knew all the coal-tit sounds. I’ve always been in awe of friends and colleagues who are extraordinary ornithologists. Like brilliant musicians, you think of them: How do you do that? So I appreciate every time I notch up a bit of extra knowledge. That, for me, is the pleasure of nature.”
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We’re sitting, chatting, at one of the wildlife trust’s more extraordinary nature reserves: Greystones. Extraordinary in many ways – not least because I’ve just parked my car on the urban tarmac of Bourton-on-the-Water and walked a mere couple of hundred metres into the deepest depths of the countryside. Soon, as early summer dawns, the stately southern marsh-orchid will raise its lavish mauve head on these rich meadows, hot on the tail of its early marsh cousin.
Outside our snug barn – visited by school parties galore – the teeming rain won’t stop the frolics of the otter in the River Eye that splashes through. Beadily watching those same waters will be heron and water vole.
As summer spreads its warmth, the wildflower meadows will blossom into starry ragged robin, nodding devil’s-bit scabious, queenly meadowsweet, bubble-gum-pink knapweed, and bolshie little yellow rattle, whose nectarous innards attract orange-tip, meadowbrown, brimstone, small copper and ringlet butterflies.
We’re sharing space with barn own, buzzard, kestrel and jackdaw; while, beneath the waters, three-spined stickleback and minnow streak their voracious paths.
But I’m here to find out about the humans dedicated to protecting them, too. And what I want to know is this. How did a child of the classic London suburb – commuter-belt territory of the 1930s – end up becoming one of Gloucestershire’s staunchest watchdogs?
It’s always hard to know when passions start. Hard to remember – if you’re immersed in that passion – when it was born and how it flourished; especially for a boy who lived in a city suburb where creeping concrete was a constant challenge to nature. If Tony Richardson wanted to experience the countryside, then Box Hill, Leith Hill and Headley Heath weren’t a million miles away.
But what he remembers most are visits to an uncle in Godstone, with its 17th century Bay Pond frequented by wetland birds: great crested grebe and coot among them. And there was his grandparents’ house in Walthamstow, where the ducks and geese of Lloyd Park provided endless fascination.
Strange, though. For surely most 10-year-olds would see a pond in a park as merely getting in the way of goalposts? What exactly was it about these strange honking, feathered things that grabbed him?
“For me,” he reflects – sounding curious about it himself - “there was more interest in wildlife than I saw in fellow 10-year-olds. The danger is you sound like a slight weirdo! But there’s no doubt I got interested in (‘communing’ is the wrong word) just seeing wildlife and trying to understand it. And, of course, as a child, one of the places I could do that quite readily was Regent’s Park zoo.”
As a young teenager, he’d catch the train to Waterloo to attend London Zoo’s junior club, dedicated to nurturing embryonic zoologists. In Tony’s case, the club more than succeeded. Particularly when a certain glamorous speaker rolled up from Slimbridge to speak about the Bewick’s swans that flew in each year from Siberia. Swans with bill-patterns so distinctive, individuals could be named and tracked as they made their death-defying 3,000-mile commute.
“I listened to this as a wide-eyed 13-year-old, thinking: This is amazing! And I vowed, there and then, that I’d visit Slimbridge AND that I’d visit the wildfowl trust. I didn’t even realise they were one and the same place!”
This was the late 1960s, when Peter Scott – that same inspirational speaker – was the David Attenborough of his day. No surprise, then, that when he’d finished his lecture, most of the young audience flocked to get his autograph. “I didn’t do that. I almost deliberately didn’t do that.”
Instead, he saved his paper-round money and wrote to Slimbridge, asking if he could visit to research a school project. At just 14, Tony bought a ticket from Paddington to Stroud, caught the trundling 416 and was met off the bus by old Mr Evans, who walked Tony across the fields to his wife Annie’s £1-a-day full-board digs… Across the fields of the Berkeley Vale that, in those forgotten days, were defined by the once gigantism of the mighty elm.
“On my very first afternoon, I was put at this little desk and given information and brochures – they were very thoughtful to a 14-year-old. Then one of the ground-staff walked past and told me he was about to feed the birds.
“’Do you want to come and have a look?’ I remember him asking.
“‘Yeah, all right, then!’
“So I climbed out of the window and went round the grounds feeding the birds. And that’s the last time I ever touched my project. Never got written.”
He went back again the next spring, this time as a volunteer on the reserve staff. That was 1969, when visiting wintering geese were in their thousands – 4, 5, 6,000 birds a season. “The experience introduced me to species I’d only ever seen in books. If you suddenly meet eider ducks face to face because you’re with a person feeding them, that’s a pretty ‘wow’ experience.”
And a couple of years later, when a job came up at the centre, he leapt at it. He’d never been an academic (despite being a grammar-school boy); he wanted on-the-ground experience.
Nor was it just the birds which inspired him.
“I got to know the Scotts very well - and what a great man Peter Scott was. In my opinion, he wore his fame very lightly. He was, of course, the son of a man of such historical importance [South Pole explorer Robert Falcon Scott]; but whatever Peter himself put his hand to, he was extremely good at doing: a wonderful artist; glider champion; ice skater; great war-record in PT [Squadron].
“And of course, when he started the Severn Wildfowl Trust [now WWT], he continually strove to get more and more successful; and he did it by encouraging others through his enthusiasm. He was a driven man; he knew what he wanted to achieve. If I learned one thing from him – and I learned many – it was how to communicate.”
I ask for an example, and he gives me a charming one. It happened, one day, when a Japanese visitor to Slimbridge approached Tony and said – in halting but clear English – that he’d met Peter Scott in Japan and would love to meet him again.
“I was caught between wanting to satisfy a visitor whilst being protective of the boss. So I told him it might be difficult.
“As we were standing there talking, Peter Scott suddenly appeared with some other visitors. He walked in our general direction, saw this gentleman, clearly recognised him, and greeted him in Japanese. I just thought ‘Wow!’ Because this was seriously impressive.
“The two of them exchanged pleasantries, Peter moved on, and I was left with this Japanese gentleman whose face said it all. Someone who behaves like Peter did has the power to change minds and decisions and worlds.”
Tony’s friendship with the Scotts expanded, later, to include his own wife, Sue, and family, who lived with him on site during his years working at Slimbridge. The Richardsons moved to open a new site for WWT in South Wales in 1986; then back to Slimbridge in 93. Before his final promotion to chief executive, Tony was majorly involved in the captive-breeding programme. “The hatcheries were always nerve-racking; I constantly worried about things like power-cuts in the middle of the night. The borderline between success and failure could be thin.
“But one of my most memorable moments was during the Falklands War. Some research-scientists based on South Georgia had hatched a couple of South Georgia pintail ducklings, which were very rare.
“When the South Georgia invasion happened, the two scientists were airlifted out – and managed to bring these two little pintails with them. I was responsible for the birds while they were in our quarantine pen at Slimbridge. And then they bred – these little war babies. I’m delighted to say the population has gone on from there.”
Tony Richardson has seen some tragic declines over his years in wildlife; and some outstanding successes, too. During his 12 years heading up the South West for the RSPB – before he retired in 2015 – there were some eureka moments. Such as the introduction of skylark patches – “Where farmers would turn off their drills, when they were sowing fields of wheat or barley, just for a nanosecond, creating habitats where the birds could nest and rear their chicks.”
Simple innovations. Innovations that work.
He shares worries that still haunt him. About ‘green concrete’ – deceptively green fields that are frequently barren, in parts of mainland Europe and the UK, where some bird populations have all-but collapsed. About the dearth of insects; the paucity of butterfly numbers. About the as-yet-unknown consequences of Brexit – might it get worse?
“The acceptance of what isn’t there is what troubles me. When I walked through the fields of the Severn Vale in the early 70s, there were breeding lapwing everywhere. Now that’s almost non-existent.”
But there are still things we can do. Which is why he was delighted to have been asked to join Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust (GWT) – first as a board member; now as its chair for the next five years. (A trust, incidentally, founded as the Gloucestershire Trust for Nature Conservation by a group of volunteers, led by Sir Peter Scott, back in 1961.)
Tony’s a huge fan of the trust’s nature reserves, particularly the more urban sites close to where people live – Crickley Hill high above Cheltenham; and Gloucester City Council’s Robinswood Hill, where the trust has its headquarters. Urban gardens, for example, are a valuable source of habitat for much wildlife.
“How do you link gardens if you’re a bird? Easily. You fly. But, if you’re a hedgehog and dealing with fences designed to be dog-proof or rabbit-proof or child-proof, it’s much more difficult.
“So we’re launching a Hedgehog Way – like the Cotswold Way – where our volunteers show people how you can link gardens and create a hedgehog nature-reserve out of a lot of little patches. There’s not a lot of difference between gardens that are pretty good for nature and those that aren’t. There’s no requirement to spend a lot more money, having a nature garden. In fact, in some ways, it’s probably cheaper.”
Another key GWT project – Building with Nature – is a benchmark standard for developers, where nature gets something out of a building project. “Whether it’s nest-boxes, or outside space designed in a holistic way, it means buyers will be able to benefit from more wildlife, which is good for everyone.”
Pioneered in Gloucestershire and Bristol, a number of housing developers have already signed up.
“That project has potential to roll out nationally, which is very exciting.”
And, of course, he’d like to see the growing membership – currently at an impressive 27,500 – hit the 30,000-mark.
The trust’s work, he says, is not about educating people – at least, not in the sense of lecturing and hectoring; it’s about supporting the many who deeply care for wildlife; who want to do their best for the natural world.
And he has an even simpler aim, too. That of getting people to look; to see the sheer beauty of the natural world around them.
“I’ve been in situations where I’m in a town centre and a red kite flies over, wheeling and turning,” Tony Richardson says.
“And I look at the kite; and I look at the road and the people; and I look at how many people are looking at the kite. And it’s nobody. And I think: How are you not seeing that!
“It’s not because they’re uninterested. I once proved this on the Teignmouth seafront with a pod of dolphins going out to sea. I had a telescope on a tripod, and I said to someone standing nearby, ‘Do you want to see dolphins?’
“Within five minutes, I had 20 people around my telescope.”
Your wildlife-friendly tips
1) Grow herbs such as marjoram and thyme – these attract pollinating insects and are useful in the kitchen. They can be grown in a garden or in pots on a window sill.
2) Compost your kitchen waste. It reduces landfill and creates habitat for wildlife.
3) If you have gaps in the garden, plants such as Rudbeckia, single-flowered dahlias and asters will attract important insects. They are great as they flower well into the autumn. Now is also a good time to sow some biennials such as snap dragons. Garden centres will soon have crocus, daffodil and snowdrop bulbs – plant these soon and provide pollen and nectar for insects early next year.
4) You may have hedgehogs in your garden. Put out cat food (not fish based) or crushed cat biscuits, and a bowl of water.
5) Enjoy time outside at a Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust event or on a nature reserve and get closer to your local wildlife. If you have a few hours to spare, consider one of the many volunteering opportunities available. Details are on gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk.
How to join the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust
Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust was founded in 1961 by a group of volunteers, led by Sir Peter Scott, who recognised that local wildlife was under threat.
The charity now manages 60 nature reserves around the county, runs events and courses to help people get closer to local wildlife, and is involved with a number of projects which support communities and individuals to enjoy being outside. It also has specialist teams who lead work to improve river habitats, reduce the risk of flooding and to connect Gloucestershire’s wildlife and wild places. Its ecological consultancy Wild Service provides expert advice to a range of sectors. For more information on, visit gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk or call 01452 383333.