It was entirely right that the heather should be in full bloom for the funeral of John Underhill-Day on 31 August. It was piled around his coffin, alongside his favourite flat-cap, at the Long Barrow woodland burial ground at Lychett Minster in Dorset.
John died of heart failure aged only 74 on 15 August, a terrible shock to his family, colleagues and friends. He was an excellent all-round naturalist with expertise in common land, and a good friend of mine and of the Open Spaces Society.
John was born in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and educated at Lancing College in West Sussex, which he hated. He left at 16 and trained to be a surveyor, scoring the top marks in the country in his year. Being self-effacing he did not even tell his family this leaving his son, Tom, to discover a book on his shelves which was awarded to him as a prize.
After five years of office routine as a surveyor he escaped to become warden of Coombes Valley, a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) reserve in Staffordshire.
From 1971 to 1988 John worked at The Lodge (RSPB’s head office) as deputy chief reserves officer and head land agent. He had a major role in the huge expansion of RSPB reserves, and he negotiated the purchase of Minsmere in Suffolk and Leighton Moss in Lancashire, among many others.
John pioneered a holistic approach to the RSPB’s reserve management—for nature in general not just birds.
He much preferred to work in the field and in 1988 he became warden of Haweswater reserve in Cumbria, the only site where golden eagles were breeding south of the border. While there he completed his PhD on the breeding status of marsh and Montagu’s harriers in Britain. In 1996 he became the senior site manager at the Arne reserve in Dorset—the heathlands of southern Britain being his favourite ecosystem, and Arne his favourite reserve.
In the late 1990s the RSPB found that it was facing threats of development on lowland heaths, in which John was expert. It called upon him to serve as a witness at public inquiries: John was reluctant, particularly as it involved wearing a suit, but he proved to be a great success and the lawyers were much impressed by his ‘magisterial’ authority.
Those inquiries included the Thames Basin heaths; Talbot Heath and Holton Heath in Dorset, and Lydd airport in Kent. In 2010 he received a 40-year service award from RSPB.
At the funeral Tom told us that ‘despite dad’s RSPB career, I’ve always regarded him as a botanist first and foremost, followed by entomology. I remember many day trips and holidays, as a boy, spent in the countryside with my dad, a cap on his head, a pair of binoculars around his neck and a tatty copy of Keble Martin’s British Flora tucked under one arm and a butterfly net under the other.
‘He also operated a Rothamsted moth-trap in the garden for many years and sat down diligently at the end of each day to identify and record the day’s catch. This was harder than you might think. Small moths look very similar, and in those days they could only be identified by examination of their genitals under a powerful microscope—a specialism in which my dad became quite expert.’
In 2005 he founded Footprint Ecology with his RSPB colleague Durwyn Liley. This consultancy, based at Wareham in Dorset, specialised in conservation management and common land—and that is how our paths crossed.
John frequently advised landowners and managers on the best outcomes for their commons and always urged them to consult the Open Spaces Society about access. We ran training days for common managers in various parts of the country, and when there was an overnight stay John always knew where to find the best local Indian restaurant.
Many are the heathland commons I visited with John to consider options for management—and I would ask him to look out for birds for me. I heard my first nightingale in John’s company on Ebernoe Common in West Sussex in May 2010, a memorable moment, and he found me a garden warbler on Shortheath Common, Hampshire, in 2011. We visited commons all over Devon, Hampshire, Surrey and East and West Sussex and they were happy days for me, giving a bit of advice but learning much too.
Durwyn spoke at the funeral of John’s generosity and upbeat nature. Nothing got him down, even though he had a tendency to test IT equipment to destruction. ‘He was one of that rare breed that can make the cross-over between academia, natural history and conservation’.
Richard Archer, a colleague from RSPB, talked about John’s abilities: ‘He was an outstanding nature conservationist, and from him I learnt much that shaped my own career, as did many other people. John combined the eye of a naturalist with the mind of a good ecologist and the practical understanding of a reserve warden. He had the quiet but unrelenting energy of a man driven to do his best to help protect the natural world.’ Richard recalled how John worked out which moth field-guide he was missing and sent it to him as a present.
In later life John was a naturalist on Mediterranean cruises, often joking ‘If you say a Latin name with confidence, they believe you.’
His daughter Penny gave a flavour of the fun they had with John as children: ‘Dad didn’t like to waste valuable time on mundane things and shaving was one of them. Back in the late 1970s he shaved off his beard, which was the only time I ever saw what his face looked like without it. I watched in anticipation while he shaved an exact half of his face and then announced he was done. He enjoyed making me laugh so much that he left it for more than half an hour before he shaved off the rest’.
John’s first wife was Beryl (Berry) Millbank, mother of Tom, Penny and Nick, whom he met in St Albans. They were divorced in 1988. In 1991 he married Jackie (nee Moore) and became stepfather to Alistair, Stephen and Dan. To quote Tom again: ‘for over 30 years Jackie has been a wonderful wife and companion; she shared his passion for natural history, partnered him in his work, smoothed some of his rough edges and kept a constant track of keys, wallets, glasses, hats and everything else that he was always misplacing’.
I shall miss John’s fun, friendship and knowledge of natural history.
John Underhill-Day, 9 October 1943 – 10 August 2018