Obituary: Ernest Neal

WHEN Ernest Neal was surprised by a badger in a Gloucestershire wood on his way home after a moth-catching expedition, it was to change the course of his life. He determined to return on the following evening to watch the animals properly and so started an interest which was to remain with him for the rest of his days.

His was the first long-term scientific study of a British mammal which relied on direct observation and objective investigation and from it came his book, The Badger, published in 1948, the first monograph in the Collins "New Naturalist" series. It was a volume which has inspired tens of thousands of people, including me, to take an interest not only in badgers but in wildlife in general. By following Neal's advice, I found myself able to watch a nocturnal mammal and enter its life without its ever being aware of my presence.

Ernest Neal is best known for his link with badgers and that original book has been updated and rewritten several times as knowledge has improved and research techniques have been refined. The most recent edition, written in collaboration with Chris Cheeseman, was published in 1996. Neal was presented with the Stamford Raffles Award of the Zoological Society of London in 1956 for his badger work and, in 1960, was awarded a PhD for his research into badger reproductive biology. He served for over 15 years on the Consultative Panel of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on Badgers and Tuberculosis from its inception in 1975 and was recently asked to comment on the latest report on the problem by Professor John Krebs. Among the veterinarians and government scientists, he felt his was the only totally independent voice representing the interests of the badger.

Neal's interests were much wider than badgers however, and he was constantly fascinated by the complex inter- relationships in both the natural world and among people. He came from a Christian household (his father was a Baptist minister) and he always looked for the best in everyone he met, an attitude which gave him a very positive outlook on life. He was educated at Taunton School and London University and his first job, in 1936, was at Rendcomb College, Cirencester. In 1946 he moved to Taunton School, where he became Second Master and a housemaster before retiring in 1971.

His captivation with inter- relationships and eco-systems was something he was able to share not only through his teaching but also through writing, photography, film- making and television. In 1952, with Professor Humphrey Hewer, Neal began to make the very first film of wild badgers at night, a significant feat given the technology at the time. It was a work which required considerable dedication and took over three years to complete, using powerful lights to which the badgers had to become habituated. It was subsequently shown on television in 1954. During his lifetime, Neal took part in over 200 radio and television programmes.

Neal was one of the founder members of the Mammal Society, a unique blend of professional mammalogists and amateur enthusiasts. He believed strongly in the value of non-professional members and constantly promoted their interests, later giving substantial support to the establishment of a youth section, now called Mammalaction. He was to be the society's chairman for five years and later served for six years as its president; as such I first met him. In 1980 he was awarded the society's Silver Medal for his work on mammals and for the society. He also helped found the Somerset Trust for Nature Conservation, now the Somerset Wildlife Trust, and was its chairman for 14 years. In 1976 he was appointed MBE for his work on nature conservation in Somerset.

Ernest Neal's interests were by no means confined to Britain. In 1962 he was invited by Stephen Curry, a former pupil and an entomologist with the Kenya Forestry Department to visit East Africa. Neal took his wife Betty and combined it with a celebration of their silver wedding. In his own words, "Africa became an addiction." In the late Sixties he was invited to carry out research on banded mongooses in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda and spent four months discovering a great deal about their basic biology which was previously unknown. He made a further 21 visits, many of them as a guest lecturer for Swan Hellenic and Ecosafaris. Naturally his appetite for the way ecosystems work was fed to the full here and resulted in On Safari In East Africa - a background guide (1991).

This book was one of the fruits of what Neal called his "bonus years", for he very nearly lost his life after an operation on his lower back in 1986. For a man who enjoyed and valued the special relationships of his family, the subsequent move to share a home with the family of one of his sons in Bedford was of great importance. Here his study, with its collection of moths, its pictures and photographs of badgers and Africa and its many books, became an encapsulation of a full and active life dedicated to sharing his knowledge with others.

Ernest Gordon Neal, schoolmaster and biologist: born Boxmoor, Hertfordshire 20 May 1911; MBE 1976; married 1937 Elizabeth Thomson (three sons); died Bedford 5 April 1998.