The bird men of Warburg PoW camp

By Huw Williams
BBC Scotland reporter

  • Published
George Waterston on Fair Isle with binoculars
Image caption,
George Waterston dreamed of setting up a Bird Observatory on Fair Isle

A new book has told the story of four men who met while bird-watching in a German prisoner of war camp and went on to become some of the founding fathers of the conservation movement in Britain.

"It was during our talks and discussions in prison camp that I evolved the idea of setting up a bird observatory on Fair Isle."

The clipped, rather Morningside, tones of George Waterston crackle out from a BBC archive recording of an episode of The Living World.

Entitled Behind the Wire, the programme brought together five naturalists who had learnt their trade while they were held in World War II prisoner-of-war camps.

One PoW had studied yeast and used it to counter the effects of diabolically poor nutrition in fellow inmates.

Another specialised in the butterflies of the Far East, after being captured by the Japanese.

But the three other guests on the 1970 programme reminisced about being held together in a German camp, where they meticulously recorded the bird life of the area.

Image caption,
Peter Conder and the other prisoners used every scrap of paper for records and drawings

Now the story of those three men - John Buxton, Peter Conder and George Waterston - along with John Barrett, who was incarcerated with them, has been retold in a new book.

Author Derek Niemann told BBC radio's Good Morning Scotland programme that nobody had pieced the whole story together before, so even the men's families had not been able to fully understand how they all worked together.

He said: "They found themselves in Warburg prison camp, with more than 2,000 other officers. And they were the only bird-watchers in the whole camp.

"So they became bird brothers, really. They found themselves bird-watching with each other day after day. And it gave them a sense of purpose.

"They no longer saw themselves as prisoners of war. They saw themselves as ornithologists."

It seems obvious that men who were being held, caged, would be attracted by watching the birds, able to fly free across the wire.

Image caption,
An early attempt to reintroduce white tailed eaglets on Fair Isle failed.

Mr Niemann says: "They used to record the birds flying up the sentry boxes and feeding just above the sentries' heads.

"So, if you like, it was a kind of laughing at the sentries. Because the birds were able to go in and out of the wire, and the prisoners were stuck behind the barbed wire."

In the archive recording the men talk of overcoming their guards' suspicions.

They also speak of scrounging wood to make nesting boxes, to help with their observations.

And they describe how bird watching could sometimes be a good cover for acting as look-out, if there was work being done under the floor of one of the accommodation blocks to dig an escape tunnel.

The men also reminisce in glowing terms about watching the birds.

One tells of watching "one of the most phenomenal bird migrations that I've ever seen". Flocks of 5,000 rooks "coming across the sky ... and diving down onto some manure heaps that we'd put onto the fields below us."

So the work was clearly important to the group at the time.

'Gestapo headquarters'

But Mr Niemann says some of their observations were also genuinely important to science.

He says: "They were spending huge amounts of time watching individual nests. So, in the case of Peter Conder, he was looking at goldfinches. And he didn't have binoculars - none of them had binoculars. But they were seeing things that no ornithologist had seen before."

Some of that research was recognised at the time, even by German experts.

"They were corresponding with a fellow ornithologist who was working a mile from Gestapo headquarters in Berlin", Mr Niemann says.

"He was writing to them in English, and he was sending (academic) papers, he was even sending bird rings to them, just to help them in their studies."

And it set the course of the rest of their lives, for at least some of the group.

Peter Conder became head of the RSPB, based in Sandy, Bedfordshire. He oversaw a 10-fold increase in membership, and helped to transform it into the campaigning force it is today.

Image caption,
A new Bird Obs was officially opened on Waterston's chosen site in 2011

And George Waterston was RSPB director in Scotland, ran the Scottish Ornithologists Club, and was a founder of the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

And his dreams of a bird observatory on Fair Isle were realised too.

In the 1970 programme he describes being repatriated by the Red Cross, in October 1943. The ship had to sail far north in the North Sea, to avoid mines. Then, one day, a shout went up: "Land ahead".

Waterston tells how "those of us who could manage, on crutches and one thing and another, all hurpled up on deck.

"And, to my utter astonishment, looming out of the early morning mists of a beautiful October morning, was the Sheep Rock on Fair Isle."

He bought the island, and established the Obs (as it is known) in what had been the old RAF huts.

Fair Isle was later sold to the National Trust for Scotland, and the huts have since been replaced with a new, purpose-built, building.

But Mr Niemann is clear.

"Waterston and Conder got into conservation because of the things they'd been doing, during the war."

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