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Memories of the Society's early days

by John F. Burton

The Wildlife Sound Recording Society (WSRS) originated from a course on wildlife sound recording that I was invited to undertake by Roger Burrows, then a staff tutor with Bristol University's Extra-mural Department: It was supported by the BBC Natural History Unit and held at the Bristol City Museum during the weekend of 8-9 May 1965. This was followed from Friday 11 to Sunday 13 June by a field sound recording course that I led together with V.C. (Victor) Lewis at Woodchester Park Field Study Centre near Nympsfield, Gloucestershire (Fig. 1). As my natural history journal records: “It proved to be a great success, despite indifferent weather on the Saturday. The large, unfinished and disintegrating 19th century mansion in the valley below the Centre housed a considerable colony of Greater Horseshoe Bats and, under the guidance of bat expert John Hooper, successful recordings were made. Bird-life was plentiful in the Park and a number of good sound recordings were made by members of the course, including Grasshopper Warbler, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Common Whitethroat.”

I was in charge of the BBC Natural History Unit's Library of Wildlife Sound and at the time used a Nagra IIIb tape recorder and the BBC's standard microphones and parabolic reflectors to make new recordings for it. The amateur recordists attending the course used a variety of the tape recorders then available, such as the Fi-cord. Some of them had gravitated to wildlife sound recording through an original interest and enthusiasm for sound recording in general and needed to learn identification skills and the necessary fieldcraft techniques to obtain good recordings of birds and other wildlife species.

Fig1Participants in the field sound recording course led by Victor Lewis and John Burton at Woodchester Park in June 1965, prior to the formation of WSRS. - Photographed by the late John Hooper.I had become involved in wildlife sound recording as an all round naturalist, who on joining the BBC staff, had been asked to take on the development of the BBC's collection of wildlife sounds. I must confess that, not being technically minded myself, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the technical knowledge of many of those attending the course and struggled to answer their questions about the various types of microphones, tape recorders, etc., then available on the market. I had learned to use the equipment the BBC provided but my particular expertise lay in fieldcraft and my species identification skills developed since I was nine years old. I was, fortunately, able to pass at least some of this on to the participants. Having the assistance of Vic Lewis on the field course, who had a great understanding of the technical problems faced by amateur recordists, was a great benefit to me.

Among the participants were Richard Margoschis and, of course, Roger Burrows, and it was they, who during these courses and earlier ones they had run at the Woodchester Park Field Study Centre, evolved the idea of forming the WSRS, a development welcomed by me and the BBC, which gave firm support to the fledgling society. This was duly done and over the weekend 30-31 March 1968 the inaugural weekend conference of the new society, attended by 18 wildlife sound recordists, was held at Woodchester Park Field Study Centre. As my journal records: “I was elected its first Chairman, Roger Burrows was elected Secretary, Richard Margoschis Editor of the circulating tapes of members' recordings and his wife, Vivienne, as Treasurer. Roger Burrows was also elected Editor of the Society's newsletter, Wildlife Sound. We decided to invite the pioneer of wildlife sound recording, Dr. Ludwig Koch (Fig. 2) to be Life President and Desmond Hawkins, the founder of the BBC Natural History Unit and then Controller of the BBC South and West Region, to be Vice-President, both of whom accepted. (I approached Ludwig Koch as I knew him well from the BBC and had had my first contacts with him back in 1948 when I was still at school). During the Saturday morning, Hugh Scully (who became the first presenter of the BBC TV programme, the Antiques Roadshow), recorded an interview with Roger Burrows about the Society for the BBC radio programme The Eye-witness. After lunch on the Sunday, the gathering concluded with a ‘free-for-all’ discussion led by BBC Natural History Unit radio producer, Dr. John Sparks, BBC sound engineer Ron Carey and myself.”

Fig2Dr Ludwig Koch pioneered wildlife recording in the days before ‘portable’ equipment was available.At this point I should write something about our first President and Vice-President as I suspect that they will be but names to younger members of WSRS, if that. Ludwig Koch (1881-1974) had made his first recordings of animals with an Edison phonograph back in 1889 and by the mid-1930s had made a considerable number of disc recordings of birds and other wildlife. Unfortunately, being a Jew and despite his work being admired by Hermann Göring, he was obliged by the Nazi regime in 1936 to leave his native Germany for England via Switzerland. He managed to bring many of his recordings with him and, encouraged by Sir Julian Huxley, he continued his recording work here, intitially co-operating with E.M. (Max) Nicholson to produce two sound-books, Songs of Wild Birds (1936) and More Songs of Wild Birds (1937).

In 1937 he made his first broadcast, illustrated with his recordings, on the BBC and, following a period of internment as an “enemy” alien on the Isle of Man at the beginning of the Second World War, he began, on his release, to work for the BBC and broadcast frequently. His unique brand of English (“Ant zo zer zinging of sseals and zer age-olt sstories of zur mermaits zinging on zur rocks”) soon made him popular with the radio audience.

After the end of the war, interest in natural history soared in Britain, and Desmond Hawkins (Fig. 3), then a BBC radio producer in Bristol with an enthusiasm for the subject, saw the opportunity to cater for it and in 1946 began producing The Naturalist, the BBC's first regular series of wildlife radio programmes. From the beginning Ludwig Koch and his recordings became an essential feature of the programmes. As a result, Ludwig became famous throughout the length and breadth of Britain. In 1948, the BBC purchased his entire collection of recordings and employed him to make more of them and to broadcast regularly. His collection became the nucleus of the BBC Wildlife Sound Library, for which I eventually became responsible. Members of the Society will find a more detailed account of his eventful and fascinating life in his book Memoirs of a Birdman (Phoenix House, 1955) and my obituary of him in Wildlife Sound (Vol. 2, pp.4-8, 1974).

Fig3Desmond Hawkins (right), who founded the BBC Natural History Unit and is here seen with Sir Peter Scott, was an enthusiastic supporter of WSRS. - Photogrpah courtesy of BBCDesmond Hawkins (1908-1999) eventually founded the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol and became Head of Programmes there, finally ending his BBC career as Controller of the BBC South and West Region. He was an enthusiastic supporter of WSRS and encouraged me to take an active part in the Society's affairs and activities. Some of the Society's members, such as Richard Margoschis and Ray Goodwin, became frequent contributors to BBC Natural History Unit radio and television programmes. Before the war, Desmond had made a name for himself on the literary scene, editing a literary magazine as well as writing himself, and getting to know well such personalities as Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound and Frieda Lawrence, the widow of D.H. Lawrence. He also became an authority on Thomas Hardy, writing a biographical book Hardy: Novelist and Poet (David & Charles, 1976) as well as several other books and his own biography When I Was (Macmillan, 1989). See obituaries of him by Christopher Parsons and myself in Wildlife Sound Vol.8, No.6, pp.58-59 and Vol. 9, No.1, p.58.

Details of the above and early memories of WSRS members, including mine as President, are to be found in the 25th anniversary edition of Wildlife Sound (Vol. 7, No. 1 Spring 1993). I remember that in the early years quite a lot of time was taken up at the AGMs, when I was Chairman, deciding on the Society's constitution. The late John Fisher, a former Secretary and Editor of this journal, took a prominent part in this. He was, quite rightly, insistent that we followed the proper procedures at AGMs and committee meetings, and made sure I did so!

Like the inaugural meeting of the WSRS, most of the early AGMs and spring meetings took place at Woodchester Park Field Study Centre, where the then Warden, the late Reg Kelly and his wife, long time friends of Richard Margoschis, were very welcoming and helpful. Apart from the AGM and the indoor discussions, as much field work as possible was carried out in the wooded and open habitats of Woodchester valley, which is rich in wildlife with a good range of bird species in addition to foxes, badgers and bats. It was a pleasure to listen to members playing back in the Centre the recordings they had made.

On the weekend of 15-17 October 1971, the AGM was not held at Woodchester, but at the RSPB's headquarters at the Lodge at Sandy in Bedfordshire. On the Sunday I led an excursion to the Ouse Washes, at Welney in Cambridgeshire. We started off in torrential rain that lasted until about noon when the sky dramatically cleared and the rest of the day became warm and sunny. Before the rain ceased we all gathered in the “Lamb and Flag” at Welney for an early lunch and refreshments. Afterwards we set off southwards on foot along the west bank of the Washes for about a mile and a half before returning to Welney at 4.30pm. The Washes were not yet flooded but we saw hundreds of Common Snipe, several Grey Herons, and scores of Mallard, Teal, Wigeon and some Pintails, plus a couple of Wheatears and many Tree Sparrows, among other species.

Fig4David Tombs (left) and John Burton (right) delivering an illustrated talk on stereo recording at Woodchester Park F.C. (photo by Jack Skeel).In May 1972 (5-7) we were back at Woodchester Park Field Centre, a weekend of sunshine and showers but with a light south-westerly wind. Members managed nevertheless to fit in a good deal of field recording, including of a Grasshopper Warbler and a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers feeding nestlings in a tall beech near the field centre.

Later that year we held the AGM during a weekend (3-5 November) gathering at the Wildfowl Trust's headquarters at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. It was another weekend of indifferent weather but members had the opportunity to record the wild White-fronted Geese and Bewick's Swans. A highlight was a female Peregrine Falcon that was present on the Dumbles.

Next year, 1973, at a spring meeting at Woodchester Park Field Centre, David Tombs and I (Fig. 5) gave a talk on stereo sound recording, illustrated with sound recordings we had made for the BBC. Stereo wildlife recording was then still in its infancy.

The next WSRS meeting I have a record of attending was a local meeting on 17 May 1975 at the lovely cottage at Compton Martin in the Mendips of Radio Bristol's David Eggleston. The 16 members who attended included Doug Ireland (then the Society's Secretary), Graham Burroughs, Mr. & Mrs. Ray Goodwin, Mr. & Mrs. Roy Dunn and Mrs. Edith Scourey, after whom one of the Society's awards is named. Sadly, the following year, when on his honeymoon, David Eggleston fell over the Victoria Falls while taking photographs, and lost his life.

After that there is another gap in my journal records until 13th October 1979 when I drove to Atherstone in Warwickshire to the Society's AGM, having recently been elected President. Here I enjoyed the hospitality of Richard and Vivienne Margoschis.

Fig5Eric Simms recording at Minsmere, Suffolk, in May 1952In 1980 the Spring Meeting of the Society was held at a new venue: Charney Manor in Charney Bassett, Oxfordshire, from 28th-30th March. The Friday and Saturday were extremely windy, but Sunday was very sunny with a light but cold northerly wind following a very cold night with frost. There were some good locations for bird-watching in the neighbourhood, such as the Vicarage Pits Nature Reserve near Stanton Harcourt, but I believe the sound recording efforts of our members were frustrated by aircraft and traffic noise, as were those of David Tombs and myself. Among members mentioned in my journal account of that weekend were Yolande Kemp-Robinson, Bernard Price and Mike Taylor.

The next year, 1981, the Spring Meeting was held at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire over the weekend of 24–26 April. The Saturday morning was cloudy with brief glimpses of the sun, plus a north-easterly breeze, but for the rest of the day, continuous heavy rain fell and put a stop to sound-recording. By nightfall the rain had become a blizzard of wet snow driven by a freshening easterly wind that became a gale overnight. On Sunday morning it was still too wet and windy to do any recording before breakfast, but afterwards the wind dropped and the rain eventually did so, too. Members, who included Malcolm Clark, John Gordon, John Heath, Richard Margoschis, Charles and Heather Myers and Bill Pedley, were then able to get out into the Fen and, despite much aircraft activity, make reasonably good recordings of the wide range of birds present. These included Cetti's, Grasshopper, Reed and Sedge Warblers, Yellow Wagtails, Reed Buntings, nesting Lapwings, Redshanks and Common Snipe. David Tombs and I spent much of the morning recording the drumming displays of the last-mentioned.

Another WSRS Spring Meeting at Wicken Fen that I attended, together with about 50 other members, was the weekend 11 - 13 May 1984. Most of us stayed overnights in the Genges Hut at the National Trust's reception centre. Fortunately, this time it was fine and sunny, especially on the Sunday, but was rather cold because of the strong north-easterly wind, which subsided at dusk each night and rose again around eight o'clock each morning. This gave opportunities for members to record the roding Woodcock present. During the weekend we listened to playbacks of the recordings members did make, which included a good recording of the display calls of a Marsh Harrier over the fen as well as Nightingale, Grasshopper Warbler and Redpoll song. Among other birds present were several Cuckoos and Tree Sparrows, two species that are much scarcer nowadays than they were then.

Fig6John Burton giving his final address as president at How Hill House, Norfolk, in 1993During the rest of the 1980s I continued, as President, to attend the Society's AGMs but made no particular notes about them in my journal. My wife Helga died in October 1984 and in May 1988 I retired from the BBC. At the end of the year, with my new partner, Wega, I began living partly in Germany and partly in Bristol. On Saturday, 11 March 1989, she and I attended the 21st birthday celebrations of the WSRS at the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire. Our guests were Sir Peter Scott, the Director of the Trust, and Eric Simms (Fig. 5), the ornithologist, former schoolmaster and prolific author and broadcaster, who succeeded Ludwig Koch at the BBC as Director of Wildlife Sound Recording in the 1950s. Eric gave the main talk of the day on the “History of Wildlife Sound Recording since 1889.”

1993 was the 25th Anniversary of the Society's foundation and my last year as President, being succeeded by Dr. Philip Radford. At the Spring Meeting at How Hill House in the Norfolk Broads, I delivered my final address as President (Fig. 6). The weather that weekend was reasonably good and I believe many of the members attending made some good recordings. How Hill House is delightfully situated with its own Broad inhabited by a wide variety of marshland birds, including Little Ringed Plover and Cetti's Warbler. I remember that several members made recordings of the latter.

At the time of writing this I'm aged 86 and only occasionally make sound recordings. Since I'm now living most of the time in Germany with Wega, regretfully I haven't been able to attend a WSRS meeting for some years, but I still read Wildlife Sound and follow the activities of WSRS with great interest and continue to study wildlife in the field as well as writing about it. I wish the Society continuing growth and great success and influence.


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