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RM Lockley, nature conservationist

Phil Carradice

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There can be little doubt that RM Lockley was one of the greatest naturalists of his age – arguably of any age. His name will be forever linked to Pembrokeshire and, in particular, to the tiny island of Skokholm off the coast of the west Wales county that he grew to love.

Ronald Mathias Lockley was born on 8 November 1903 in Whitchurch, Cardiff, where his mother ran a boarding school. At weekends and during the long school holidays he delighted in living rough in the woods close to Whitchurch, alongside the old Glamorganshire Canal. It was great training for the future naturalist who, from an early age, developed a love of birds and of all the natural sciences.

When he left school, rather than go on to further education, the young Lockley joined his sister in buying and running a small poultry farm near St Mellons on the outskirts of the city.

In 1927, with his first wife Doris – he married three times in all – he took a 21-year lease on the island of Skokholm. The uninhabited island lay a bare two or three miles off the Pembrokeshire coast but it was, for all the world, as distant as the moon, particularly when the wind blew and the waves came crashing in from the west.

Lockley House, Skokholm (© Dave Challender, under Creative Commons Licence)

It was a hard and spartan life. To begin with Lockley reared and sold rabbits. He attempted to breed the rare chinchilla variety but soon discovered that it was unrewarding work. Writing books and articles on wildlife, he quickly found, was far more remunerative.

Skokholm was the ideal location to observe wildlife and Lockley, now in seventh heaven, studied the migratory habits of the birds he encountered on the island.

In particular he made an extensive study of the Manx Shearwaters who came to the island in their thousands. He wrote a magnificent monograph on these amazing birds and detailed the breeding habits and life style of all the island birds in Island Days (1934) and I Know An Island (1938).

By now the wider world was taking an interest in Lockley. He became friendly with other scientists and naturalists, people such as Peter Scott and Julian Huxley. He founded not only the first British bird observatory on the island but also the Pembrokeshire Bird Protection Society. This later became the West Wales Field Society and then the Wildlife Trust West Wales.

Lockley even managed to persuade the great film maker Alexander Korda to come to Pembrokeshire and shoot one of the early naturalist films on the life of the gannet. This was done on the remote Atlantic island – even more remote than Skokholm – of Grassholm.

Despite having to leave Skokholm during World War Two when the island was taken over by the army, Lockley continued to write and campaign for nature conservation. In 1952 he took a leading role in setting up the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and was instrumental in the mapping out of the coastal footpath around the county.

His campaigns were not always successful. Living now in the old manor house of Orielton outside Pembroke, he was one of the chief opponents to the use of Milford Haven as a base for the oil refineries that even now dominate the shores of the estuary. Fulminate and campaign as much as he liked, the power of industry won in the end and the refineries duly arrived.

While at Orielton he made a long and extensive study of rabbit behaviour and, in his book on the house and the estate, wrote movingly about the bats who lived in the area. However, Lockley never forgot his island days and one of his most charming books remains Letters From Skokholm.

The book is a collection of 50 letters to his brother in law John Buxon – many of them written and sent to the POW camp while Buxon was a prisoner of war in Germany – describing and detailing the flora, fauna and history of the island. The letters were written during Lockley's enforced absence from Skokholm and are as much about keeping the place alive and breathing in his own mind as they are about entertaining the captive Buxon.

In 1970, convinced that the government and those in positions of power were not taking seriously the threat from industry to the landscape and natural life of Britain, Lockley emigrated to New Zealand. He spent the rest of his life travelling in Polynesia and in the remote areas of the Antarctic. He died on 12 April 2000, aged 96.

Lockley wrote over 50 books in his long and productive life. His most famous work is probably The Private Life Of A Rabbit, which came out in 1964. It was instrumental in helping Richard Adams develop his novel Watership Down - a debt Adams later repaid by making Lockley one of the characters in the final chapters of his book The Plague Dogs.

RM Lockley remains one of the most influential writers of his time. His books are learned and yet entertaining, informative and charming at the same time. He remains a truly inspirational figure.

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