I Know An Island - Rm Lockley

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20170416

Jon Gower uncovers the work of the pioneering naturalist RM Lockley, whose work inspired 'Watership Down'.

In terms of bringing the natural world to the public, RM Lockley remains one of the most influential writers of his time. Born in 1903 in Cardiff, Lockley was self-taught yet solved many mysteries of migration, mostly due to the time he spent on the small island of Skokholm, 4 kilometres off the western tip of Pembrokeshire. On this island, named by Vikings, and inhabited otherwise only by birds and rabbits, he wrote ground-breaking works on the migratory habits of Manx shearwaters, detailed the breeding habits and life cycles of all the island birds in Island Days (1934) and I Know An Island (1938), and founded the first British bird observatory, still functioning, of which there are now 19 around the coast of the UK.

It was a hard and spartan life. To begin with, Lockley reared and sold rabbits; but writing books and articles on wildlife, he quickly found, was far more remunerative. The wider world began to take interest, and Lockley became friendly with other scientists and naturalists such as Peter Scott and Julian Huxley. Lockley managed to persuade Alexander Korda to come to Pembrokeshire and shoot one of the earliest naturalist films, 'The Private Life of the Gannets' in 1934. The film, written by Lockley and directed by Huxley, was made on the nearby island of Grassholm, won the first Oscar for a natural history film, and is still revered today as groundbreaking.

But perhaps Lockley's most important legacy is the inspiration he provided for the classic of children's literature 'Watership Down'. Lockley wrote a dry government report about rabbits, and then turned it into 'The Private Life of the Rabbit', which Adams read. They became friends, travelled to Antarctica together, and Adams introduced Lockley, the real-life character, into his novel 'The Plague Dogs'.

For Jon Gower, Lockley set him on a path towards both birdwatching and writing about the natural world. After he read the Shearwaters monograph aged 12, he resolved to travel to Bardsey island to ring and observe birds like Lockley. He talks to others who took inspiration from him, and considers how much we learned from Lockley's home-made experiments.

As much as painting a portrait of Lockley and his time on Skokholm, this feature evokes and pays tribute to the stunning coastline and island where Lockley worked.