Saviour of Jersey's Agile Frog
Saturday 20 May 2006
Bob Burrow lived in the island of Jersey for all 56 years of his life. Apart from a few business trips, the furthest he strayed was to the tiny islet of Burhou, off Alderney, to ring sea-birds. In the best traditions of island living, he could turn his hand to almost anything. He was, over the course of a busy life, a fisherman, fitter, roofer, businessman, honorary policeman and bookseller. He was also one of Jersey's busiest and most accomplished field naturalists.
Perhaps Burrow's best memorial will be his single-handed efforts to save one of Jersey's rarest and most attractive wild creatures, the Agile Frog. So-named because it can leap six feet from a stationary position, by the 1980s the frog was in danger of extinction after its few breeding ponds had become polluted or overgrown. As if that were not bad enough, the frog was also menaced by hungry ducks. Thanks to well-meaning people feeding them titbits, the island's feral ducks had increased to plague proportions and were eating most of the spawn and tadpoles before they could turn into frogs.
Realising this, Burrow took practical steps to help the frog. Over several years he removed some of the spawn from the remaining ponds and reared the tadpoles through their most vulnerable stage before returning them to the wild. He called the process "headstarting". Similar attempts by a later, more formal frog conservation group lacked Burrow's magic touch and were less successful. Fortunately Burrow had continued to "headstart" the beleaguered frogs. From teetering at the brink of extinction, the current outlook for the frog is now "cautiously optimistic".
Burrow's way with wild animals was often remarked on. He had a gentleness and obvious empathy which showed itself in the way he handled the birds he was ringing - another, lifelong passion. Many would-be ringers never quite get the knack. Burrow had it from his teens, and went on to ring thousands of birds, especially sea-birds, helping ornithologists to unravel the secrets of bird movements and migration.
His knowledge of birds showed in another way after gulls and pigeons roosting and nesting on houses and other buildings in St Helier had become a serious public nuisance. Burrow surveyed the town, noting where they were nesting. He then became a professional nest-remover in a rooftop world reminiscent of Mary Poppins, charged with the task of persuading the birds to nest somewhere else. Characteristically, when he saw the state of St Helier's rooftops, he set himself up in a new business - as a roof repairer.
Although he was an expert on the birds, as well as the butterflies and moths, of the island, Burrow was a self-taught naturalist. He was educated at De La Salle College and St George's School, but left at the age of 16 after his father developed polio and the family needed another breadwinner. He joined the Jersey New Waterworks company, where his grandfather and namesake had been general manager and where his father Keith had worked as a chemist. But, though he joined the ranks as a general handyman, welder and fitter in the desalination plant, Burrow felt uncomfortable with the ambiguities of his position and soon decided to set up his own business.
He enjoyed fishing and owned several small boats, which brought in a modest income. He went into business as a wholesale supplier of shellfish to France and other European countries. However, his honest and easy-going ways were at loggerheads with the increasingly ruthless and aggressive methods of larger companies. He eventually turned instead to supplying fishing equipment, such as rope, nets and navigational gear.
Over 20 years, Bob Burrow served as a volunteer in Jersey's Honorary Police, rising to become first a centenier (a title derived from its ancient responsibility for 100 families in the parish), and finally as chef de police for the parish of St Clement, where he deputised for the connétable, the senior citizen of the civil parish. The work provided opportunities for Burrow's impish sense of humour. Giving a lift to some friends to the harbour terminal in his police car, he opened the passenger door and roared in a voice that could be heard from Guernsey, "And now you two, get out of the island and don't come back!"
Finally, in 1990 he began dealing in secondhand books, initially as a postal business but then renting a former butcher's shop on a main road just outside St Helier. There he stocked some 40-50,000 titles, and Books and Things became one of the largest antiquarian book dealers in the Channel Islands.
Burrow combined his love of books and natural history by specialising in the New Naturalist library published by Collins since 1945. His stock of these iconic, richly illustrated and, in some cases, rare and expensive books was probably the largest in the world. Arranged in their gleaming jackets on cases over two walls of the bookshop, they made a stunning impact on visitors. Again, combining business with pleasure, he started a New Naturalist collector's book club in 1999. Its newsletter, produced at erratic intervals over the year, advertised forthcoming additions to the series, exchanged information on rare editions and posted wants and exchange lists from its 500-odd members.
A very active, hands-on naturalist, Burrow was a lifelong member of the Société Jersiaise, which he represented on the St Ouen's Bay Preservation Committee. He helped to build up the Jersey branch of the RSPB and its Young Ornithologists' Club. He served for a while on the Lands Committee of the National Trust for Jersey. And he was also a trustee of the Jersey Ecology Fund, which used settlement funds from the Amoco Cadiz tanker disaster of 1978 to fund wildlife conservation projects.
In 1994 Burrow attempted to persuade the authorities to let him convert a wartime tunnel in St Catherine into an aquarium displaying local species of fish as well as all the island's reptiles and amphibians. Although the plans were approved by the island's development committee, local opposition to them led to his withdrawing the application.
In recent months, Burrow had been planning to convert a derelict farm into an interpretative centre on the island's wildlife. It was to have become a key part of his wider vision to make Jersey a leader in combining farming with conservation and encourage more naturalists to visit the island.
In 1978 Bob Burrow met and married Sarah Mescall, a talented croquet and hockey player. Their son, Matthew, is now one of the world's highest-rated croquet players. In time Bob, too, developed into a useful player, though he never quite matched the proficiency of his wife and son. He also played a very decent game of bowls, and was always in demand to complete a team.
Burrow never lost his cheerful and essentially sunny disposition. He was generous, friendly and transparently honest. His catchphrase was "Yes, I'll do that for you, my love". Jersey has lost an enterprising and trusty islander, as well as one of its most prominent green citizens.
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