Richard Fitter

Innovative writer of wildlife field guides
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The Independent Online

Richard Fitter was a prolific writer of wildlife field guides and one of the best-known British naturalists of the 20th century. His mould-breaking book published by Collins in 1952, Pocket Guide to British Birds, was arguably the first modern British field guide. Comprehensively illustrated with paintings by his friend R.A. Richardson, it made life easier for the birdwatcher by dispensing with the traditional order and grouping together birds by size and by their habitat. If you saw a big bird on the sea-shore, you had only to turn to the relevant page. Although Fitter and Richardson were criticised by traditionalists, post-war birders liked the book, and over 100,000 copies were sold. At the time of his death, the ever active Fitter was working on a flora of France.

In 1955, Fitter teamed up with David McClintock to write The Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers. Once again, Fitter dispensed with tradition. Rather than begin with buttercups and end with grasses in the approved order, he grouped the illustrations by colour, so that, for example, all similar-looking yellow flowers, whether they were buttercups, celandines, cinquefoils or rock-roses, appeared side-by-side. Together with its well chosen field notes and asterisks to denote rarity, the guide became a firm favourite for a generation of wild flower lovers.

Over more than half a century, Richard Fitter wrote a dozen field guides on birds, plants and the countryside. In his 91st year he joined the artist Marjorie Blamey and his son Alastair (now Professor of Ecology at York University) to produce what is widely regarded as the best illustrated British flora of our time, Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland. It includes several characteristic Fitterian innovations, including an illustrated glossary and keys, close-ups of fruits and flowers and thumb-nail distribution maps for every species. Exceptionally among recent field guides, there are no European flowers added purely to extend sales.

From an early age, Fitter was obsessed with making records. He made lists of birds and plants from his rambles and car journeys, and maintained a small library of notebooks, reports and card indexes. His habit of recording the first dates of wild flowers was put to unexpected use in the 1990s when observers began to note that frogs were spawning and migrant birds arriving earlier than usual. Fitter's 50-year run of records of over 500 plants formed a unique source of data, which, when analysed, revealed that spring flowers were opening up to a month earlier, and that a few species, such as white dead-nettle, had extended their flowering over winter. The records also showed that climate change is very recent, with no evidence of change before 1990.

Richard Fitter was born in 1913 in south London, the only son of Sidney and Dorothy Fitter. He was a keen birdwatcher from boyhood; his earliest memory was of sitting in his pram watching ducks on the pond at Tooting Bec Common. Like many boys of his generation, he collected common bird's eggs, but once he acquired a pair of binoculars, his passion turned to living birds. He was encouraged by E.C. Arnold, headmaster of Eastbourne College, where Fitter boarded, and a keen ornithologist. An inveterate list-maker and notebook-filler, Fitter began to record birds for the London Natural History Society, and took particular interest in two birds that had only recently begun to breed in Britain, the little ringed plover and the black redstart.

Following the fortunes of the black redstart took Fitter and his binoculars to such unlikely birding spots as Westminster Hospital, the British Museum and even Trafalgar Square. His running censuses of urban birds also brought him into contact with other leading birdwatchers, such as Max Nicholson and James Fisher. He and Fisher became perhaps the first motorised urban birdwatchers, one of them driving while the other craned from the window, counting birds as they came in to roost.

Surprisingly, given his passion for wildlife, Richard Fitter studied Economics at the LSE. His father ran a meat-importing company and hoped that the young Richard would develop a business sense. However, after graduating, Richard Fitter instead joined the research staff at the Institute for Political and Economic Planning (PEP), founded in 1931 to investigate the economy, education and health. Working with another naturalist, Tom Harrison, he showed an aptitude for report writing in clear, non-technical English, and for summarising complex information in accessible form. He brought this talent to bear on his subsequent posting to Mass Observation, which applied the principles of social science to build up a picture of ordinary life Britain.

His work in PEP and Mass Observation gave Fitter a broad perspective of the social community which he brought into his observations of birdlife. He later summed up his life's main occupation as "observing wild and human life". The first fruit of this fusion was his great book London's Natural History (1945), published as one of the first volumes in the still-running Collins New Naturalist library. The first fully comprehensive urban natural history, and making use of the notes he had accumulated since childhood, Fitter traced the changing nature of the city's wildlife, including its most recent manifestation, the greening of bomb sites in the East End of London.

Fitter wrote the book with Trollopian regularity, devoting to it two hours every evening after his day time war service at the Operational Research Station of Coastal Command. The book was published just as the European war ended in May 1945. Helped by its ground-breaking colour photographs, over 40,000 copies were sold to a war-weary public. Denied access to the countryside for much of the war, townies were keen to see what home ground could offer.

Fitter's all-round knowledge of nature and his experience with social report-writing led to an invitation to serve as secretary to the Wildlife Conservation Special Committee chaired by Julian Huxley charged with making proposals for nature conservation as part of the post-war construction. Fitter visited many of the places proposed as nature reserves, finding many of them much damaged by military use, or even ploughed-up during the national emergency. His recommendations helped to frame the "shopping list" which resulted in Britain's first National Nature Reserves.

In need of more regular employment, Fitter and his family left London in 1946 for the pleasant Cotswold town of Burford, where he became deputy to John Cripps at The Countryman magazine. For eight years he was also "open air correspondent" for The Observer, contributing a column called "Fitter's Rural Rides". Although written in the spirit of William Cobbett, Fitter's perambulations were principally about the gentler pleasures of roaming and observing wildlife, especially in the Home Counties.

Having witnessed the loss of many of the places he knew in pre-war days, Fitter became an active conservationist. He helped to set up BBONT, the naturalist's trust for the home counties of "Bucks, Berks and Oxon". With his wife, Maisie, who edited its magazine, Oryx, he joined the Fauna Preservation Society (now Fauna and Flora International), becoming its Honorary Secretary in 1964 and effectively running its British business. Fitter travelled extensively on society business and represented it at conservation meetings in Britain.

His other conservation-related activities included his membership of the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), which he joined in 1963, later becoming chairman of its steering committee. He also had a stint as information officer for the Council for Nature and as secretary and treasurer of the British Trust for Ornithology. He was involved in the preparatory work that led to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In later years, Fitter became fascinated by the Galapagos Islands, where his son Julian had settled as a wildlife guide in the 1970s.

Most of his conservation work was voluntary and unpaid. From 1953, when he and Maisie bought their beautiful family home on the crest of the downs at Chinnor, Oxfordshire, Richard Fitter earned his living from writing. He was author of nearly 30 books, with a range of subjects scarcely rivalled by any other natural history writer. They included a popular Penguin Dictionary of Natural History (1967), The Penitent Butchers (1979), a history of the Fauna Preservation Society written with Peter Scott, a biographical work, Six Great Naturalists (1959), and The Ark in our Midst (1961), a study of animals introduced to Britain.

Above all, he will be remembered for the field guides, covering not only wild flowers and birds but freshwater life, grasses and ferns and the countryside, as well as locality-based books on finding wildlife. He possessed to an unusual degree the necessary persistence, encyclopaedic knowledge, card-index memory and literary method to produce one field guide after another without apparent strain while continually inventing new ways of bringing user and subject together. He was an ideal companion in the field, happy, relaxed and with an interesting - but never overwhelming - view on everything he saw. His family shared the wildlife bug - his wife and lifelong natural- history partner Maisie, whom he married in 1938, and his sons Julian and Alastair, were also distinguished naturalists.

Peter Marren