Book review: Birds In A Cage by Derek Niemann

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MOST birdwatchers take the simple things in life for granted – watching starlings in the garden, spotting oystercatchers along the seashore or snatching a view of a buzzard or kestrel as they patrol above the roadside.

Birds In A Cage

BY Derek Niemann

Short Books, 312 pages, £20

Derek Niemann’s new book, which tells the stories of four British servicemen taken prisoner during the Second World War and how they went on to found today’s wildlife conservation movement, teaches us not to be so complacent.

One of the four men, George Waterston, could lay claim to be Scotland’s most-important conservationist. Born in 1911 into the family that ran Edinburgh stationery stalwart George Waterston & Sons, this Edinburgh Academy former pupil incubated his love of birds during his childhood.

Before the war, Waterston was involved in setting up the bird observatory on the Isle of May, in the Firth of Forth, in 1934 and, two years later, he founded the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC), which still plays a key role in recording and protecting Scotland’s birds. His keen interest in nature was to serve him well during his war years, helping him cope with the mental strain of imprisonment.

Waterston enlisted as a territorial with the Royal Artillery. His first posting was on familiar ground, guarding the islands in the Firth of Forth, but 1941 saw him dispatched to Crete. He was captured when the Nazis invaded the island later that year and shipped off to Germany as a prisoner of war.

Kidney problems plagued Waterston his whole life and he was seriously ill when he was captured. He was taken first to Lübeck in June 1941 but was confined to the prison camp’s hospital, suffering from stomach ulcers, before being moved in October of the same year to Warburg, a giant camp designed to hold all the captured Allied officers.

There he met John Barrett, John Buxton and Peter Condor, the three other principal characters in Niemann’s book. Buxton, who had worked at the bird observatory on the Welsh island of Skokholm, had met Waterston briefly on the Isle of May before the war and the four came together during late 1941.

Although they were only held in the same prison camp until September 1942, together they studied the birds they could find in and around the camp and even recruited other POWs to help in their work.

Niemann quotes extensively from the men’s diaries and from their memories, creating an intimate portrait of young men fighting to stay hopeful in the face of despair.

Although the imagery of the book’s title – birdwatchers replacing birds in a cage – is obvious, Niemann’s skill alows him to balance those hopes and that despair without resorting to cliché.

Niemann’s ability to weave events going on outside the prison camps – Churchill’s speeches, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the D-Day invasions – brings the book to life and puts the men’s lives into a broader context.

Waterston, his health a constant problem, was repatriated in October 1943 and, after operations on his kidneys, spent the rest of the war surveying birds for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

While Niemann’s book does not skimp on the horrors that the men faced in the camps, his final chapter focuses on how the four fulfilled their promise following the war.

Barratt helped run the Field Studies Council outdoor education centre at Fort Dale, in Wales, training generations of naturalists.

Buxton went on to help Waterston found bird observatories, published his war-time notes on the redstart as part of Collin’s New Naturalist series and became an English literature fellow at New College in Oxford.

Condor enjoyed arguably the most high-profile carer following the war, running the RSPB from 1963 to 1975, during which time he turned the organisation from an amateur club into a professional body, boosting membership from 20,000 to 200,000 in the process and laying the foundations for its growth to today’s one million supporters.

As for Waterston, his influence continues to be felt today. In 1948 he bought Fair Isle to found the bird observatory of which he had dreamed during the war, before selling the island on to the National Trust for Scotland.

Waterston left his work with the family firm in 1955 to work part-time for both the SOC and the RSPB in Scotland, growing both organisations and, along the way, helping to reintroduce white-tailed eagles and protecting the nesting ospreys at Loch Garten, in Strathspey. The SOC’s beautiful wood-and-glass headquarters in Aberlady, East Lothian – which houses Scotland’s largest library of bird books – is named in his honour, though perhaps his greatest legacy is in his influence on the next genertion of Scottish conservationists.