Beccles: Book’s fighting talk from a conservation big-hitter

Derek Moore and a jaguar

Derek Moore and a jaguar - Credit: Archant

The rise and rise of the bashful boy from Beccles who became one of the most influential and outspoken figures in British nature conservation is an environmental epic.

It is the tale of a journey that has taken Derek Moore from the small north Suffolk market town to the very top of the conservation movement and to many of the world’s greatest nature reserves, with visits to Buckingham Palace and an investiture of a OBE award for services to nature conservation among many impressive sojourns along the way.

It is a tale that is told in Mr Moore’s newly published autobiography Birds – Coping With An Obsession.

The book’s strapline is “one man’s journey through 70 years of birdwatching” but it could equally say that it is the environmental movement’s journey through those decades as Mr Moore’s rise seems to mirror so closely that of the recent rise of conservation issues through the public consciousness.

Mr Moore was born on January 1, 1943. He was a New Year’s Day baby who in later life was to become the epitome of the new breed of naturalist-conservationist – passionate, driven and doggedly determined to protect nature against the ravages of any destruction that is wreaked in the name of so-called progress.

So fiercely committed to the cause is Mr Moore that it is hardly surprising that he has ruffled many feathers along his life path and the autobiography does not duck some contentious issues.

That life path has taken him to such elevated posts as director of the then Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation – a charity that he guided from the first day of 1985 until 1999, with a name-change to Suffolk Wildlife Trust along the way – as well as going on to head up the conservation department of what was to become known as The Wildlife Trusts, the umbrella organisation that unites all 47 UK wildlife trusts and then leading what became The Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales until his retirement in 2004.

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Before his professional involvement in nature conservation began, Mr Moore had been, by his own admission, “obsessed” by wildlife, especially birds.

His autobiography is littered throughout with tales of his encounters with high-powered celebrity naturalists, royalty and politicians. But it is clear that three figures in particular helped to set him on his epic life journey.

The first was a legendary figure in Suffolk ornithology, GBG “Chris” Benson. Mr Moore recalls the first meeting as a “chance encounter” – the “formidable” Benson was a teacher at the Sir John Leman Grammar School in Beccles, to which the young Moore went after passing his Eleven Plus exam.

On one occasion the pupil’s copy of the Observer’s Book of Birds dropped from his satchel and was picked up the teacher, triggering a long-lasting and, for Mr Moore, an inspirational friendship.

After Mr Moore’s early employment in a Beccles bank, distractions from natural history in the form of cricket, football and a burgeoning semi-professional career as keyboards player and singer in a rock and soul band, and marriage to his wife Beryl, a switch of jobs led to a move to Carlton Colville where he was to meet the second of the three great figures in his formative days – the late Lowestoft naturalist Brian Brown.

Mr Brown, who became a close friend until his untimely death, introduced Mr Moore to the magic of Minsmere, the acclaimed RSPB nature reserve near Westleton where they both would volunteer in the early days of its development.

Crucially, it was here that Mr Moore became inspired by the late and very great Bert Axell, the man who masterminded Minsmere.

Mr Moore writes: “Bert was an impressive, self-opinionated and extremely driven man. His vision for Minsmere was easy to follow. He could see the potential for even more birds than already occurred and set about achieving this by some of the earliest habitat creation schemes in the UK, which included the famous Scrape.

“I was inspired, and this convinced me that there was more to birds than just seeing them. You had to work and fight to make sure they had suitable habitat to survive. This set me off on a new path in my quest for birds.”

That path would eventually lead to the key leadership roles played in various wildlife trusts.

As far as his county of birth is concerned, Mr Moore oversaw and led the Suffolk trust during a time of huge progress in many areas, such as the raising of its public profile, increasing its membership levels, increasing its reserve acquisition and developing its habitat management techniques, and taking a leading and pioneering role in opening up public access to all its sites.

But perhaps the most seminal chapter in Mr Moore’s involvement at the Suffolk trust came with the battle against massive port expansion plans at Felixstowe.

He recalls that before the plans were announced, as the trust’s director, he was “immersed” in “office detail”. However, with the announcement “there came a chance to stand up and fight for my beloved birds,” he writes.

“The Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company announced that they were seeking permission to remove more than 400 acres of inter-tidal mudflats on the River Orwell in order to extend there quay space. The river was a Site of Special Scientific Interest but we knew that Government could override this designation in favour of the ‘national need’. This was during the prime ministership of Margaret Thatcher so we were not optimistic of a positive outcome.”

The trust joined forces with the RSPB and the Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group and formed a campaign know as OUT – Orwell Under Threat.

The end result, after long hard battles that took Mr Moore and other campaigners to the heart of government with long hours spent at Westminster, the extension went ahead – but with the provision of a new nature reserve, the trust-managed Trimley Marshes.

“Our involvement in this matter gave the trust significant presence in Suffolk thereafter,” writes Mr Moore.

“We had arrived and were regarded as an organisation which stood up for the environment and did so in a thoroughly professional manner. We never looked back and began to build the organisation from that base.”

Anyone who knows the often pugnacious Mr Moore will expect a few salvoes to be fired in the autobiography – and they will not be disappointed. In his final chapter – entitled What of the Future – Mr Moore pulls no punches and among his targets are politicians, many of whom, he says, merely pay “lip service” to protecting the environment. He writes: “To begin with, if you look around the world, the more desecration there has been in a particular country then the higher the membership of its conservation organisations. To put it crudely, people only wake up to the problem when it is already too late.

“Our elected politicians at every level see protecting our precious wildlife and environment as something that can be added on if we can afford it. They also see people who are lobbying for that protection as being part of a leisure industry which must take its place alongside other interests. What they cannot seem to grasp is that the environment should be sacrosanct and that we, the human race, are only as healthy as that environment because we are part of it. In other words, all government policies should have protecting the environment and biodiversity as an element of primacy. You can spend all the money like on health and so on, but if the environment is in a poor state then I would suggest that this money is being wasted.”

He cites the “break up” of Government agencies which originated as The Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) as a “big contributing factor in the continued demise of British wildlife.” He pointedly writes: “This act of vandalism, carried out by Tory minister Nicolas Ridley in 1989, was a reaction to politicians being embarrassed by the NCC’s power and scientific prowess and seeing this getting in the way of what they would describe as progress.”

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in nature conservation are not free of criticism either. He writes that there are too many of them and many only concentrated on single groups or even single species.

He adds: “The other concern I have with our NGOs is whether they have become so dependent on finance from government sources at every level, and also from industry, that they have lost the ability to fight the very things which are leading to the decline of our wildlife.”

In a particularly scathing passage, Mr Moore attacks the “dinosaurs who refer to themselves as the ‘True Countryman’. He writes: “This arrogant grouping is usually well to the right in its thinking and wants to maintain the dominance of the human race over all else.

“Despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary they pursue their beliefs, which are utter nonsense, that predators should be culled or even removed altogether for the sake of smaller species. It is hard to believe that most of these people really care about anything except their beloved gamebirds or racing pigeons.”

He adds: “These people still carry on as if the law does not affect them. The scandalous situation with the poisoning of birds of prey, and in particular the almost complete extermination of the hen harrier as a breeding species in northern England, is a serious crime and it is amazing that few landowners have been prosecuted.

“It is frankly embarrassing when travelling abroad to concede that the UK is as bad, or if not worse, at destroying wildlife as anywhere else. We are in no position to preach to others.”

Mr Moore’s many friends, his family, his acquaintances and, indeed, his adversaries over the years, will be very surprised to hear it but on two occasions in the book he recounts times when he was lost for words. Mr Moore has a justifiable reputation as one of the truly great environmental raconteurs – always thought-provoking, always passionately flying the flag for nature and always, always, entertaining. We have known for many years that Mr Moore is a master of the spoken word. His autobiography shows us that he is also master of the written word.

n Birds – Coping With An Obsession is published by New Holland Publishers and costs £14.99.