I don’t know what made me ask. Serendipity. A visiting friend had said his wife hadn’t come with him to see us because they had guests from overseas – a palaeontologist and partner.
Out popped the words, “Not Ronald Lockley’s son?” I’d once been told that his son was a palaeontologist. It was, and he came, and we were a mutual admiration group for his father. Synchronistically I had just been re-reading his father’s autobiographical book ‘Orielton’. Mostly because I wanted to refresh my mind about rabbits!
Ronald Lockley was the brilliant naturalist who did the research on rabbits which was the basis for Richard Adams’ famous book: ‘Watership Down’. Richard Adams made millions out of this book which has never been out of print, while Ronald wrote over sixty five books to keep the wolf from his door!
But in ‘Orielton’ he tells not only how he organised his amazing research into the life and domestic habits of wild rabbits, but how he also gained an insight into rabbit psychology, when he adopted an injured baby rabbit. His son – the one who came to talk – helped to keep it alive overnight and then That Rabbit, or TR as she was called, became part of the household.
The household lived in a remote and rambling beautiful Georgian manor surrounded by parkland of lakes, woodland, farms and gardens in Wales. A succession of other famous naturalists, Spanish domestics and would-be students and helpers passed through it, and the family and its animals lived a rich and lively life. Ronald’s interests and observation ranged over the private life of the large spiders inhabiting his home, to the badgers, birds, bats, rabbits, hares, and stoats, otters, ants and bees ranging the estate. This house which had rung with laughter, music, wit and brilliance from the likes of Ronald and Julian Huxley and Ludwig Koch, he finally handed over to the Field Studies Council, before leaving England.
Ronald was already well known among naturalists before he published his four year study of “The Private Life of the Rabbit”, having lived on, and written about the uninhabited island of Stokkum, off the Welsh Coast. Here from 1928, he pioneered studies of migratory birds, established the first British bird observatory in 1933, and carried out extensive pioneering research on breeding Manx Shearwaters, Atlantic Puffins and European Storm-petrels – wonderful names… In the thirties he had made an Oscar winning film on gannets with Julian Huxley, but here at Orielton it was rabbits that took up most of his attention.
That Rabbit – TR – slept in the cat basket by the fireside, and when she was awake was “excessively playful” according to Ronald. She invented a version of hide and seek which she played on the stairs with anyone who would join in, and would chew through the string of s cotton reel Ronald used to roll around for her, seize the reel in her mouth and rush off dodging through the furniture as though playing rugby, enticing Ronald to chase her. If he was busy, she’d chew through his slippers, wreck his socks, and if all else failed, leap onto his type writer and push her face into his to get his attention.
After an unfortunate incident with a stoat, Ronald devised a system of In and Out doors which closed behind TR so the stoat couldn’t chase her inside. She learned immediately how to work this system, just as she had instantly worked out how to organise her toiletry, and never messed inside.
For afternoon tea in the garden with the rest of the family, she enjoyed weak tea with milk and a little sugar … and as time went by, Ronald realised that if he had not had this relationship with TR, he would never, as he said, have understood the soul of a rabbit. Even as an adult, TR sought out his company and showed a deep attachment to him.
The end of the story came when on one of their walks together, TR encountered a young buck rabbit… and then again. She left home and set up house with one of her own kind. But this was not the end of the story.
One night when everyone was sitting round the fire they heard the In-door, and TR came hopping through. She went straight to the cat basket, and grabbed in her teeth the dolls blanket which she used to cuddle up in, and then made a dash for the Out- door.
She had remembered as she prepared her burrow for her first litter of babies, that soft warm rug by the fire-side that she had always used!
Ronald had given me ‘Orielton’, with several others of his books, and I was such an ungrateful insensitive person in my younger days that I’d never got round to reading them. Natural history just didn’t do it for me then, and I was too wrapped up in my teenagers and complicated life generally.
I used to meet him when I was delivering my weekly column to the newspaper, and Ronald was delivering his naturalist column. (no e-mail copy then!) He had come to this country to live, because he felt that the UK was not committed to looking after the environment. We loved each other, and yet when I left Auckland to live in the country, we lost touch. It makes me sad now, Ronald was never really appreciated in this country – no-one really knew or recognised his work back then in the seventies and eighties.
But as usual he made his mark on the place. He was involved in setting up the bird sanctuary at Miranda where every year, hundreds of thousands of godwits gather to begin their stupendous flight to the other side of the world – Siberia – to breed. He also created a little protected reserve around the house on the cliff where he lived, overlooking the sea on the edge of Auckland. I still have the book he gave me about his life in that: “House Above The Sea”, as it was called.
If fame means having an obituary in the New York Times, an entry in Wikipaedia and in various biographical tomes, Ronald does have fame. But I actually feel that the words from Ecclesiasticus describe him best: “and some there be which have no memorial…. these were merciful men, whose righteousness has not been forgotten.”
Richard Adams, who made a fortune out of Ronald’s research – which he acknowledged – said of Ronald that he was a “sensitive and clear-sighted lover of this beautiful earth.” The gentle humorous man I knew was also a lover of all beauty. He died in 2000 at ninety-six, and as I wrote this, these words came into my mind: “Swim with the dolphins deep in the sea, Soar in the sky with the birds and be free…”
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
I needed a cake in a hurry the other day, and it was serendipitous too, because there was enough left for coffee when my expected visitors arrived the next day to talk of Ronald Lockley.
For this easy lemon cake you need 225 g each of soft butter, caster sugar and SR flour, four eggs and a lemon. Just beat the butter, sugar, eggs and grated lemon rind. When creamy, add the flour and beat gently. When blended pour into a medium sized greased and floured loaf tin and bake for fifty minutes at 160 deg C. I make a glaze of the juice of the lemon, a tablesp of caster sugar, and a teasp of butter. Melt and stir together and brush over the loaf when cooked.
Food for Thought
In a Bath Teashop
“Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another –
Let us hold hands and look.”
She, such a very ordinary little woman;
He, such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop’s ingle-nook.
John Betjeman 1906 -1984 Much loved and much read Poet Laureate, and eccentric. As an under-graduate he took his teddy-bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore to Oxford with him, which was immortalised in the book: ‘ Brideshead Revisited’ by Evelyn Waugh.