John Berry

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The Independent Online

John Berry, environmentalist: born Edinburgh 5 August 1907; Research Officer, Biological Research Station, University College, Southampton 1932-36, Director 1937-39; FRSE 1936; Press Censor for Scotland 1940-44; Biologist and Information Officer, North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board 1944-49, Conservation and Fisheries Adviser 1968-89; Director, Nature Conservancy in Scotland 1949-67; Vice-President, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland 1959-82, Honorary Vice-President 1982-2002; CBE 1968; Conservation and Fisheries Adviser, South of Scotland Electricity Board 1973-89; married 1936 The Hon Bride Fremantle (two sons, one daughter); died Newport-on-Tay, Fife 16 February 2002.

John Berry, the first Director of the Nature Conservancy in Scotland from 1949 to 1967, is remembered with huge affection and respect as the leading pioneer of conservation in Scotland.

His beginnings were fraught. His mother died soon after he was born in 1907 and he was brought up in the main by his elderly aunt in the old family house – Tayfield House in Newport-on-Tay, Fife; his father, William Berry, a prosperous Edinburgh advocate with a passionate interest in wildlife protection, would fill Tayfield at weekends with like-minded conservationists. One of John Berry's earliest childhood memories was being allowed to attend meetings in the magnificent library to listen to discussions on the need for proper legislation to protect Britain's wild birds and other animals. He was only four years old at the time, and it was to inspire a lifelong love for natural history and environmental matters.

Despite intense dyslexia he scraped through the Common Entrance to Eton (his father's old school) and took the Natural Sciences Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge, followed by a PhD at St Andrews (1935).

In his early career he conducted salmon research for the Fishery Board for Scotland and was research officer for the Biological Research Station at University College, Southampton for four years, before becoming Director in 1937. In 1936 he was elected one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, at the age of 28; and in 1939 he published his magnum opus, The Status and Distribution of Wild Geese and Wild Duck in Scotland.

During the Second World War, Berry was in Military Intelligence as Press Censor for Scotland, and was then, in 1944, appointed Biologist and Information Officer for the newly formed North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. The Hydro Board was the brainchild of the great wartime Secretary of State for Scotland Tom Johnston; Johnston became its chairman in 1945 and was impressed by the young civil servant John Berry.

In the late 1940s there was much discussion about establishing National Parks in Britain. The Government set up a Wildlife Conservation Special Committee which reported in 1947 (officially known as "Command 7122") and recommended National Parks. The Scottish Office insisted on having its own report and set up the Ramsay Committee, which reported the same year.

Opinion in Scotland about National Parks was polarised; most Scottish landowners did not want them at any price. Berry was a member of the Ramsay Committee; and, although he was also a member of the Scottish Landowners' Federation, his experience of increasing pollution and land mismanagement had inspired his enthusiasm for increased control over land management. The final report in 1949 recommended a number of National Nature Reserves for Scotland.

As a result of the various reports, the Nature Conservancy was established by Royal Charter in 1949 "to provide scientific advice on the conservation and control of the natural flora and fauna of Great Britain". Once again, the Scottish Office wanted a separate Scottish Committee of the Nature Conservancy, to be based in Edinburgh with its own Chairman and Director and staff. Tom Johnston, still a power in the land, saw to it that his Hydro Board protégé was appointed as Nature Conservancy Director for Scotland.

Berry's task was to win over the landowners to the concept of National Nature Reserves. Within a year he had engineered a spectacular coup, with the audacious purchase (for £4,000) of the mountainous estate of Beinn Eighe in Wester Ross. Berry had been authorised to bid for only a few hectares of remnant Caledonian Pine Forest there, but when the owner suggested a full takeover he made a verbal offer at once – and it was accepted. The Nature Conservancy bosses in London were horrified, but in 1951 Beinn Eighe was declared Britain's first National Nature Reserve.

He had other favourite sites in mind – two "local" sites in Fife which he had visited with his father and loved in his childhood: in particular, Tentsmuir Point and Morton Lochs, both of which became NNRs. He was also instrumental in the inspired purchase (for £8,400) of a headquarters in Edinburgh for the Nature Conservancy at 12 Hope Terrace – the wartime home of the Belgian Vice-Consul, Baron Georges Marchand. It is now the headquarters of Scottish Natural Heritage, the successor of the Scottish Nature Conservancy which Berry did so much to create.

When he retired as Director of the Nature Conservancy in Scotland in 1967 at the age of 60 he was able to indulge his passions on a wider stage. With his wife, Bride, he travelled extensively and was appointed to many prestigious international committees. Honours were heaped upon him: honorary doctorates, fellowships, medals; and in 1969 he was appointed Deputy Lieutenant for Fife. In their latter years he and Bride moved from Tayfield House into a charming cottage in the estate grounds, where John built a "bug-house" in which he delighted in breeding exotic butterflies like the Great Mormon Swallowtail from India. How he revelled in the sight of these magnificent creatures emerging in all their glory!

John Berry was not merely a great politician and practitioner of the nature conservation crusade; he was also, in the best sense of that now outdated (alas) phrase, one of nature's true gentlemen; a man of courtesy and kindliness. No one could fail to be inspired by a visit to John and Bride Berry at Tayfield; and I treasure the memories of my protracted visits there in 1999 when I took the opportunity of filming Berry in his natural habitat on behalf of the Royal Society of Edinburgh – one of the happiest and most memorable commissions I have ever been privileged to undertake.

His last words for the film were, "We're on the road, we know where we're going. Keep driving!" They serve as a lasting inspiration for all of us in the environmental business.

Magnus Magnusson