David Cobham did much to change attitudes to the countryside, with his pioneering nature programmes, and he delighted youngsters and their parents with his classic 1979 feature film Tarka the Otter, which was set in Devon but filmed partly in Scotland.
One youngster he directly inspired was the 13-year-old Chris Packham, who linked up with Cobham after watching his BBC documentary The Private Life of the Barn Owl (1977), which used Army night vision equipment to get groundbreaking footage of owls swooping down on mice in total darkness.
“I wrote to David Cobham wanting to help,” Packham recalled. Packham described Cobham as a “personal hero” and followed him into a career in nature films, presenting The Really Wild Show, Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch. “It is a great honour to know a man so committed to conservation. Watching wildlife TV has inspired people to look after all this stuff,” Packham said when he interviewed Cobham for the BBC in 2010.
The son of a vicar, Michael David Cobham was born in 1930 at Boynton Hall in East Yorkshire. He could trace his ancestry back to Henry VIII. One ancestor reputedly introduced turkeys into England in the 16th century and others were amateur or professional natural historians.
Extensive grounds around his ten-bedroom childhood home gave him an early opportunity to explore nature. He attended Stowe public school, where he was head boy, excelled at cricket – he was 6ft 6in and a demon bowler – and organised the natural history society.
After studying biology, zoology and geology at Cambridge University, he had hoped to become an artist, specialising in birds. He wrote to Walt Disney looking for work, but was turned down. Eventually he decided that he would try his hand at nature films instead. He and a friend made a short film about the training of a hawk, on a budget of £500. “It was shown in the cinemas as a filler and made us money back straightaway,” he said. Cobham spent several years making commercials and public information films – he was reputedly the first filmmaker to mount a camera on a motorbike at the TT races on the Isle of Man. Then David Attenborough commissioned him to make The Goshawk (1968) for BBC2. It was based on a non-fiction book by TH White about attempts to train a bird using traditional techniques.
In the early 1970s, Cobham worked for the BBC Natural History Unit and caused a stooshie with The Vanishing Hedgerows, which was broadcast as part of The World About Us series in 1972. Whereas some might have anticipated gentle nostalgia, it was a stinging rebuke of farmers, focusing not just on the disappearance of hedgerows, but also the impact of pesticides on wildlife.
“I felt that it had gone far enough and that there was a reason for making a film to show exactly what damage had been done, not only to the land but also to the wildlife,” said Cobham. Arguably, it was the first overtly political film about the environment to be broadcast on the BBC.
It was narrated by Henry Williamson, who wrote the novel Tarka the Otter. Williamson and Cobham’s work together on The Vanishing Hedgerows would lead a few years later to a film version of Tarka. Cobham produced and directed it and co-wrote the script with Gerald Durrell. It took two and a half years to film.
“Finding an otter that would do everything that’s necessary was very, very difficult,” said Cobham. “We got this little otter called Spade and he was absolutely wonderful. He would just follow us like a dog, but he would only work for a couple of hours and then he had to come and sit in your lap and dry off in your sweater.”
Eddie Anderson, who was owl handler on Tarka and worked with Cobham on many projects, recalled: “Towards the end of filming Tarka the Otter, we experienced the first of many mild winters in Norfolk and Devon, the chief filming locations. Some essential snow scenes were missing.
“Cameraman Terry Channell, otter handler Peter Talbot and David took the night train from Euston to Inverness, arriving at dawn – the otter having escaped in the baggage truck for half the journey.” They filmed around Culloden for four days. “The otter played ecstatically in the snow, which it had never experienced.”
Anderson added: “David visited Scotland a few times to film various wildlife. In particular he made a film about the sad demise of peregrine falcons in Britain. They have since recovered more successfully than anyone could have imagined. When David was writing his book A Sparrowhawk’s Lament, about the plight of all British birds of prey, I took him all over the country to see every nesting species. I drove him back and forth across Scotland as we went from golden and sea eagle nests, to ospreys’ nests to merlin, peregrines, hen harriers and so on.”
Cobham also directed various children’s television programmes, including Woof! (1989-97), about a boy who turns into a dog, and Bernard’s Watch (1997-2001), about a boy and his watch that stops time.
In recent years he devoted much of his time to the Hawk and Owl Trust, which he helped set up, and to a reserve he established at Sculthorpe Moor, near his Norfolk home.
The cast of Woof! included Liza Goddard, whom Cobham married during the run of the show. She survives him along with his two stepchildren, Sophie and Thom.
An earlier marriage ended in divorce.