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Obituary: Bruce Campbell

David Snow
Wednesday 13 January 1993 00:02 GMT

Bruce Campbell, ornithologist, writer and broadcaster, born Southsea Hampshire 15 June 1912, married 1938 Margaret Gibson-Hill (two sons, one daughter), died Witney Oxfordshire 9 January 1993.

BRUCE CAMPBELL exemplified in his life, more strikingly perhaps than anyone else, the transition from the 19th-century naturalist - a collector and sportsman in equal measure - to the scientific, conservation-orientated naturalist of today. A fluent, gifted and humorous writer, a good organiser, and a lively, amusing speaker, he was a major influence - through his writing, his work for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and his broadcasting - in promoting the public interest in birds and environmental matters that is essential if there is to be any future for the natural world.

His close association with his father, an army officer and keen birds-nester and egg-collector who later became the army's Inspector of Physical Training, set the course of his life. His early years were spent mainly in Hampshire, where under his father's tuition and with his own native flair he began to acquire the extraordinary skill in finding nests that was one of his hallmarks - a skill now conspicuously lacking in many otherwise able ornithologists. I remember a day in the Forest of Dean in the 1950s, when after helping him to check the Pied Flycatchers nesting in boxes which he studied for many years, I walked with him through the woods and, by casually tapping the vegetation with his stick and poking about, he found in perhaps 40 minutes two or three nests each of Wood Warbler, Blackcap and Garden Warbler, even one of which I would have been quite pleased to have found in a season.

His school years at Winchester seemed to have been most memorable for the days off when he was able to roam far afield, looking for nests - and not only nests; his interests were wide, embracing plants and insects. The highlights were holidays in Argyll, where his parents had moved on his father's retirement - 'The place I have looked on as 'home' for nearly 60 years'. It was at Winchester, however, that a more scientific interest in birds began to develop. A lecture by the explorer and naturalist Tom Longstaff on the Oxford expedition to Greenland described Max Nicholson's pioneering mapping of territories of breeding birds, and made him realise that 'there is something you could do with nests other than emptying them'. All this and much else - for Campbell was a meticulous diarist and record keeper - is recounted in his autobiographical Birdwatcher at Large (1979).

A degree in forestry at Edinburgh University, where he still indulged his taste for wildfowling and rough shooting, was followed by temporary work in forestry, various part-time jobs, and finally a post with the Central Council for Recreative Physical Training (CCRPT), a London-based organisation with countrywide activities.

In 1939 he moved to Cardiff, organising the CCRPT's activities in Wales, and while doing so began in his spare time to carry out a detailed study of the bird population of farmland, which eventually developed into a Ph D thesis, the first Ph D in Britain to be gained for ornithological fieldwork.

This qualification, not so common in those days, was fortunately timed. While he was writing it up, he was invited by James Fisher to join a small group of naturalists on an aerial count of grey seal pups which, being white, are conspicuous from the air, round the coasts of Britain. The exercise, though unsuccessful as a census, helped to establish Campbell's contacts with influential ornithologists, and to his being invited soon after, in 1948, to be the first full-time secretary of the rapidly expanding BTO.

During his 10 years at the BTO, Campbell was responsible for its continuing development as a nationwide team of amateur enthusiasts working under the guidance of a small number of professionals and carrying out surveys, population monitoring, and special ad hoc studies that were to make British bird populations the most thoroughly known in the world, and would provide the scientific basis for government policies. He also began to be a regular broadcaster, and after leaving the BTO spent three years as senior producer at the BBC's Natural History Unit at Bristol. Later, he joined the staff of the Countryman on a part-time basis, and continued with a varied programme of writing and broadcasting, finding time also to edit the massive and authoritative Dictionary of Birds (1985) for the British Ornithologists' Union. His summing up was characteristically modest. He confessed that: 'birdwatching to me has always been a sport rather than an art or even a science, though, of course, a scientific structure can be built on it'.

(Photograph omitted)

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