A decade ago I was fortunate to visit the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. The Trust’s contributing founder was Sir Peter Scott, son of the Antarctic explorer, Captain Robert Falcon Scott. He was only two years old when his father died during the famous, ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. Captain Scott instructed his wife in one of his last letters: ‘make the boy interested in natural history’. Young Peter read Natural Sciences in Cambridge but graduated in History of Art. It was an apt combination since he was wholly committed to the conservation of wildlife but also an accomplished artist. After the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust had been given a £4.4 million Lottery Fund grant towards the £6 million costs of the project, work progressed and it is now home to the world’s largest collection of swans, geese, and ducks. It is also the only place in the world where you can see all six species of Flamingos.
His house on the Slimbridge estate has huge windows overlooking the estuary because Peter Scott wanted to observe the arriving swans, geese, and ducks. He realised that ‘our lives are so linked with the natural world, that we have to learn to love it and to look after it’. He wrote: ‘I think it is wonderful that absolutely anyone will be able to sit in that same window in the future years and feel just as inspired.’ He painted what he saw and his numerous sketches and paintings sold at Slimbridge contribute to the cost of the upkeep of the estate. One of his best-known paintings ‘Taking to Wing’, was printed 350,000 times as a picture, Christmas card, and a mat. He designed a panda logo for the World Wide Fund, of which he was a founding member.
Sir Peter Scott was born in London in 1909. He was named after Peter Pan as his godfather was the author J M Barrie, who wrote the famous book and also observed: ‘The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.’ After Cambridge, Peter Scott excelled as a sportsman; a bronze Olympic medal for sailing in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and he was also a national championship standard skater.
During World War, II he served in the Royal Navy. He commanded a gunboat in the English Channel and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery. On 8 July 1941, it was announced that Peter Scott had rescued survivors from a burning vessel while serving on HMS Broke. On 2 October 1942, he was mentioned in despatches for ‘Gallantry, daring, and skill in the combined attack on Dieppe.’ On 1 June 1943, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross ‘for skill and gallantry in action with enemy light forces.’
After the war, Peter Scott was appointed Member of the British Empire in 1953. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in 1973. In 1987 in the Birthday Honours, he was appointed to the Order of the Companions of Honour ‘for services to conservation.’ He was also the recipient of the WWF Gold Medal and the Paul Getty Prize. It all started with his work in the conservation of wild animals at The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust.
At Slimbridge, he established an open nature reserve and he became known as the ‘Patron saint of conservation’. It was Sir Peter Scott who introduced a young David Attenborough to Slimbridge who made several documentaries about the reserve for television. He and David Attenborough were jointly profiled in one series of BBC2’s ‘The Way We Went Wild’. In 1996 Sir Peter Scott’s life and work were celebrated in a BBC Natural World documentary. Narrated by David Attenborough, it was on the 50th anniversary of the creation of The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust.
Sir Peter Scott was credited with naming the Loch Ness Monster ‘Nessiteras Rhombopteryx’ so that it could be registered as an endangered species. The name, based on Greek, means ‘the wonder of Ness with the diamond-shaped fin’. It is also an anagram of ‘Monster hoax by Sir Peter Scott’.
Sir Peter Scott passed away in 1989 but the legacy of his extraordinary life and work will live on forever through The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust.
The fame of Slimbridge is such that it became a destination for millions of tourists from all over the world. Those driving through Gloucestershire to Slimbridge can also pass on the way the beautiful villages with houses that are the heritage of this country. Some are postcard cottages built with Cotswold stone, with thatched roofs and roses around the doors, others imposing Tudor buildings; the black timber sharply contrasting with the dazzling white of the walls. Anyone planning to visit this country this summer should put Slimbridge on the top of their list.
As for Sir Peter Scott’s legacy – it was written in his obituary: ‘It is hard to imagine a life better spent.’