Peter Conder


Peter Conder (1919-1993)


Well known ornithologist, and Director of the RSPB, who established conservation practices for British wildlife


The son of a shipbroker, Peter Conder was born in South London and his interest in ornithology began when he came to Cranleigh as a boy. He became a member, then Secretary, of the school’s popular ornithological society and in the Foreword to one of his many books on birds and birdwatching he recalled sneaking from the school dormitory for early morning birdwatching expeditions. Despite throwing himself into school life as a member of the Choir, House Prefect and OTC Lance-Corporal, his academic career was uninspiring and in the spring of 1938 he began work at SH Benson, the advertising firm launched by his eponymous grandfather, the celebrated ‘king of advertising’. This start was to help him transform the public face of the RSPB many years later.

In early 1939 he joined the territorial army and, as war broke out, was soon deployed to France, where he was captured by the Germans and marched all the way to a Prisoner of War camp in Laufen, Germany. Even here, Conder was a passionate, obsessive birdwatcher and the German guards soon became familiar with his patrols; in the absence of bird diversity in his first camp he spent over a year transcribing their song. In a series of camps until 1945 he worked on his census and description of birds and their habits. He escaped while being transferred to another camp, evading his captors by bolting into the woods, but kept hold of his 17 heavy notebooks wrapped in a shirt fashioned as a rucksack, hiding in a barn where he was eventually picked up by the American army. His experiences as a POW are described in Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann, which details the importance of his war notebooks and how he, along with three other birdwatching British POWS, went on to influence nature conservation practice and policy.

On his return to England he became a warden at Skokkolm Bird Observatory in Wales, studying the Northern Wheatear, and publishing his observations. By 1954 he had taken a post as Assistant Secretary of the RSPB, responsible for acquiring and managing of nature reserves; throughout his career he always believed in ownership of land as the best practice for species protection. During this time he was also responsible for research, prosecutions and the monitoring of oil pollution and pesticides, all of which he took up as campaigns when he ended up as Director of the organisation.

Although he was naturally shy and disliked the limelight, Conder’s passion for birds came first and he took centre stage when he needed to in the cause of bird protection. Elements that he introduced to the Society under his Directorship paved the way for modern conservation practice and contributed significantly to the protection of many British species. As well as his highly effective political campaigns, which led to the banning of use of certain pesticides and the removal of hedgerows, he understood how to appeal to the lay interest. During his 13 years in post he took the RSPB from an ineffectual organisation of 20,000 members to more than 200,000 and made it into the thriving organisation it remains today.

“The word conservation is badly misused…There is nothing old-fashioned about good honest protection where it is needed.” (RSPB Guide to Birdwatching)