Obituary: Peter Conder

Peter John Conder, ornithologist: born London 20 March 1919; Warden, Skokholm Bird Observatory, Pembrokeshire 1947-54; Assistant Secretary, RSPB 1954-62, Director 1962-75; OBE 1976; books include British Garden Birds 1966, Birds of Woods and Hedges 1969, RSPB Guide to Birdwatching 1978, RSPB Guide to Watching British Birds (with David Saunders) 1984, The Wheatear 1990; married 1952 Patricia Higginson (one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 8 October 1993.

PETER CONDER epitomised the modest and unselfish man who puts a cause - in this case bird protection and conservation - before his own personal ambitions. And in this lay his success. Hating the limelight, yet understanding the need for a strong public and political profile for birds, he would encourage or even instruct his colleagues in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to take on issues and expound them to the media. Where credit was due, Conder always wanted it to go to the individual concerned. In this way, he moulded the RSPB into the team it truly was.

Although he was naturally shy and never relished the thought of public speaking, Conder had charisma, charm and a great presence, all enhanced by his craggy good looks. In his preferred company of a small group of birdwatchers or conservationists he was highly inspirational. It was, I feel sure, this inspiration, his deep love of birds and a basic nous and intuition that were the catalysts for the meteoric rise of the RSPB during the 13 years of his directorship, from 1962 to 1975. He was also fortunate to have behind him the administrative skills of the late Cecil Winnington-Ingram and the down-to-earth support of his long-time Chairman, the late Stanley Cramp. The strength of this remarkable triumvirate and the size of its contribution to bird conservation has perhaps never been fully appreciated.

Peter Conder made many innovations which helped to pave the way for modern conservation practices. He knew that the society's work must be based on sound science, so he established a research department. His realisation of the importance of politics led him to create posts that tackled conservation issues at government level. His early background in advertising (he was enormously proud to be the grandson of SH Benson, the first advertising 'king') prompted him to invest heavily in promoting the RSPB in the national press; one result of this was that the society's membership had increased tenfold to 200,000 when he retired. At heart, though, he remained a nature-reserves man, feeling that reserves were the guts of the RSPB's work. Not surprisingly, during his time at the top the society's land holdings grew from virtually nothing to over 20,000 hectares.

Conder also ensured that conservation capital was made of the big changes caused by modern agriculture. During the 1960s and early 1970s, habitat destruction such as hedgerow removal could be observed daily, while concern over toxic chemicals was highlighted by the public's witnessing the deaths of thousands of birds. Conder realised the power of such events in 'turning on' public concern. All this led to collaborative research with other conservation organisations which revealed the damage being done to Britain's wildlife by DDT-related chemicals; this in turn led to the political lobbying necessary to secure their banning or control.

Conder enjoyed this process of collaboration and I feel he may have been secretly embarrassed at the RSPB's success, almost wanting other smaller or less successful organisations to share in it. I also suspect that he hated modern conservation jargon. If the term 'biodiversity' had been suggested to him, he would have said 'Go away, chum, and think up something the public will understand.' He always knew the importance of the common touch and keeping things simple.

Conder's interest in ornithology began when he was a boy at Cranleigh School, and was nurtured during five years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany during the Second World War. He joined the RSPB as Assistant Secretary in 1954, having spent the previous seven years as warden of the bird observatory on the island of Skokholm in Pembrokeshire. He was a good field man with a sharp eye and a quick ear and a love of counting birds. Whenever there was survey work to be done, he was always keen to take part: many a winter's day was spent with him on the Wash counting waders. At heart he remained an amateur birdwatcher.

He tried very hard to bring about a merger between the RSPB and the then Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves. To his everlasting regret, it never came about. Had it done so, and had there been a power struggle for the top job, I know Peter Conder would have stepped aside. He had the vision to see that progress should not be jeopardised by one person's ambition. Indeed, he showed this wisdom when, in 1975, at the early age of 55, he decided to retire as RSPB Director. He could easily have gone on for another 10 years and would have had the loyal support of his staff. But he felt that it was time for an injection of new blood and new ideas. In that, perhaps, there is a message for us all.

(Photograph omitted)