Obituary: Susan Cowdy

Susan Cowdy was a well-known figure in the conservation of the natural history of her native Buckinghamshire, and at a national level through her work with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Bardsey Island Trust and other bodies.

She first visited Bardsey Island - the nature reserve in North Wales which is famous for its breeding sea-birds and the rare red-billed crow, the chough - as a volunteer cook at its recently founded bird observatory in 1957.

From cook she graduated to council member of the observatory and began a study of the island's chough population. In Britain this is a very rare breeding bird found in the Celtic fringes in west Wales, the west of Ireland and south-west Scotland. Later that interest led to the setting up of a national census of the species through the BTO. In 1976 she was the prime mover of the appeal that led to the purchase of the island and the establishment of the Bardsey Island Trust.

She was also active in her native Buckinghamshire. She played a key role in the development of the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Naturalists Trust, and was instrumental in creating a series of nature reserves in the area - choosing the sites, persuading landowners and farmers to co-operate and raising money for purchase. In the 1970s she founded the Bucks Bird Club and served on the councils of both the RSPB and the BTO and was vice-president of the latter. Though she was always keen to promote others, honours did come to her. She was Bernard Tucker Medallist of the BTO in 1968 and in 1995 received the highest honour the conservation world can offer, the Christopher Cadbury Medal of the Royal Society for Nature Conservation.

Born Susan Stewart-Liberty in 1914, she grew up in the Chiltern village The Lee, owned and remodelled by her family, whose business was Liberty's, the Regent Street store. Her childhood was a blend of influences which included the circles of artists and craftspeople associated with the shop, the natural world of the Chilterns, horses and hunting with the Old Berkeley, and a large and close-knit family. An early marriage took her to Northern Ireland where John Cowdy, her husband, worked in his family's linen business. He, like her, was an accomplished point-to-point rider. Susan Cowdy, soon with three small children, did not become an isolated young mother. She had a wide circle of varied friends, and childcare became largely a matter for the nanny while she bought, broke and sold horses to supplement the family income. The family returned to The Lee during the Second World War, and it was after her children left home that her childhood interest in natural history and especially birds came to the fore.

Susan Cowdy had the capacity to get people to enjoy doing exactly what she wanted them to do. She herself was always willing to turn her hand to anything. She had little relevant formal education, but through talking, reading and observation she became as knowledgeable as many professionals.

Her home was the hub of this activity. People came and went continuously. Round the kitchen table might be a near neighbour responsible for the catering at the local bring-and-buy sale; a prominent figure in the international conservation movement; a teenager in need of a temporary refuge; a plant ecologist; a lobster fisherman from Lleyn en route to the Boat Show in London: all engaged with Cowdy in animated discussion of Bardsey Island politics or the likely winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Unlike most naturalists of her generation she did not travel the world when cheap airfares became available. The British Isles provided more than enough to delight her eye and feed her curiosity. The New Year would usually find her on the north Norfolk coast or at Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire, eyes watering in the easterly blast as she identified waders. Spring was the time for the flowers of the Burren, the choughs of western Ireland and visits to Irish relatives - Bardsey drew her in the migration season. But perhaps she was happiest of all walking the dogs in the beech woods and on the downland of the Chilterns she came to love in her childhood.

People always interested her as much as the natural world and almost to the end of her life she would delight local audiences with scurrilous talks about the five generations of her family who had lived in her Chiltern village.

Martin Richards

Susan Stewart-Liberty, natural historian and conservationist: born The Lee, Buckinghamshire 6 August 1914; MBE 1981; married 1935 John Cowdy (died 1974; one son, two daughters); died Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire 9 July 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'