Sir Peter Scott
His influence on conservation and why it's still so relevant today
Sir Peter Scott, son of captain Scott of the Antarctic, was two years old when his father died. In later life he went on to become our greatest naturalist of the twentieth centaury. Founder of the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust and the World Wildlife Fund as well as prominent member of the IUCN, he was particularly known and influential for his promotion and preservation of the actual wild habitat used by animals, rather than simply their preservation in zoos.
SIR PETER SCOTT
THE GREATEST NATURALIST
OF THE 20th CENTUARY
From the depths of the deepest oceans to the tops of the highest mountains, nothing in the world was not affected when 25 year old Peter Scott came to stay at this lighthouse in the 1930’s
Sir Peter Scott was:
‘The father of conservation’: - Professor David Bellamy
‘The patron saint of conservation’: - Sir David Attenborough
When his world famous father, Captain Scott died in the frozen wastes of the Antarctic, Peter was just two years old. As his father lay dying, he wrote to his wife; ‘make the boy interested in natural history if you can, it is better than games’.
Growing up under the huge shadow cast by his father was difficult for a highly ambitious young Peter Scott, who was a natural artist and excelled at so many things including skating and sailing, but none of these, however good he became at them would make him in the eyes of the world, anything other than ‘the son of Captain Scott’.
He also wanted to paint atmospheric pictures of wild birds flying in the mists and feeding on the open marshes but at that time graphic art was the only way to earn a living and so his frustration and uncertainty about the future grew. His escape from reality was to be out on the lonely Norfolk and Lincolnshire marshes. There, like many great naturalists of that time and those before them, he became a hunter of birds; a wildfowler.
After a near death experience during a night on the Wash, he finally reached shore by the lighthouse, exhausted and hungry but it was to be a moment that would have great consequences for himself and global wildlife.
The lighthouse was in one of its regular ‘unfit for habitation’ cycles and used for storing equipment but he saw more and took out a lease to make it into his first home. See our lighthouse history page.
The lighthouse and its surroundings can rapidly generate a very special effect of peace, calm and clarity of thought in many people as well as feelings of great attachment. It was under the influence of the lighthouse that he underwent a metamorphoses that would turn him from a confused young man into forming ideas that were to turn him into the most influential naturalist and conservationist of the 20th century.
During that first year he made the decision that he would in fact paint what he wanted. He had a sell out London exhibition and went on to become a world famous artist. It was here too that he wrote and illustrated his first two books 'Wild Chorus' and 'Morning Flight'. Many of these books are difficult to get hold of these days.
More importantly however, he excavated a tidal lake beside the lighthouse and began to collect wild geese and ducks. At first it was to use them as artistic models and simply for the pleasure of having a wildfowl collection but soon, his ambitions grew and he wanted the best collection. This decision was to see him travel around the world searching for and collecting geese that others didn’t have.
It was during these trips that he realised that everywhere he went the story was the same and that wildfowl numbers and those of other species were plummeting like crazy. This was generally due to increasing mechanisation either destroying the habitat that was needed to sustain them, land drainage, predation, pollution or better weaponry and access, leading to more being killed.
He realised that what was needed was a global organisation not only to protect birds and animals but principally to protect, preserve and restore their habitats and not just preserve the species themselves from extinction such as the IUCN at that time concentrated on.
His friend American writer Paul Gallico was inspired by the tales Peter told of living in a remote lighthouse far out on the marshes, with his goose collection, sailing boat and his art. ‘The Snow Goose’; possibly the most emotionally powerful and romantic wildlife fiction book ever written was based on this background. Click here for the Snowgoose Story.
In 1939, Peter was called into the navy, served in destroyers and later commanded a flotilla of fast motor torpedo boats before being seconded to plan for the ‘D day’ landings. He wrote a book about these experiences called ‘The battle of the narrow seas’.
When the war was finished, he was sadly unable to return to the lighthouse as the army had left it once more a ruin and ‘land grabbing of the marshland’ meant he no longer had water for his wildfowl collection.
When his step-father was asked what the war had cost Peter, he said that it had cost him his beloved lighthouse.
After the war he began to pursue the ideas for global conservation developed whilst at the lighthouse. Moving to Welney, alongside the River Severn in Gloucestershire, he founded the Severn Wildfowl Trust that eventually became what is today known as the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust. This was to be his domestic organisation but whilst it also had global interests, it was not the huge organisation with global reach that he had envisaged.
His global organisation finally came into being as The World Wildlife Fund that today is responsible for vast nature reserves and conservation around the world. He designed the instantly recognisable panda logo for them. Brilliantly clever in its simplicity, the panda logo is also a throwback to the days when there was no colour printing.
He was involved throughout his life in radio and television broadcasts and continued to write environmental books, in which he was ably assisted by his photographer wife Philippa and his life story in the full version of ‘Happy The Man’, which is an easy and fascinating read.
Of the many global campaigns he was involved in, ‘Stop the Whaling’ and the Antarctic Treaty were major achievements as was the introduction of the 'Red List'; a traffic light coloured indication of species relating to their common or endangered status.
He was closely associated with saving of the Hawaiian goose, which by pure coincidence, has the same name as the river that the lighthouse stands beside, being called the ‘Nene’ goose. At the lighthouse today, there is a tribute wildfowl collection to Sir Peter Scotts collection, containing some of the rarest geese in the world including Hawaiian geese (Nene) and red Breasted geese.