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The story of how four POWs changed UK bird conservation is coming to Cambridge

By Adrian Curtis

Derek Niemann
Derek Niemann

Top author to give Cambridge talk about birdwatching POWs

Peter Conder OBE at RSPB The Lodge, Sandy
Peter Conder OBE at RSPB The Lodge, Sandy

Birds in a Cage is the story of how four prisoners of war in Germany shared their love of birds to overcome hunger, hardship, fear and stultifying boredom.

Their experiences in captivity, although leaving them scarred, set them on a path to becoming giants of the conservation movement in the UK once hostilities ceased.

Though five years after the book was first published the story, told superbly by author Derek Niemann, still resonates with birdwatchers and war historians the world over.

It tells how Peter Conder, George Waterston, John Barrett and Edward Buxton, all taken prisoner early in the Second World War, spent their time documenting the comings and goings of the various birds which flew with freedom around their German camps.

A waxwing - one of the species seen by the POWs
A waxwing - one of the species seen by the POWs

The years spent under the careful watch of German guards, who often shot first and asked questions later, if they asked them at all, created an enduring bond between these four bird-obsessed men.

But their story only came to light when Mr Niemann was given a previously unknown batch of letters by Mr Conder's daughter Sarah. He then pieced together a further archive of correspondence and papers to create an affectionate, engaging and often humorous portrait of their prison ornithology.

It sounds the perfect way to idle time away in captivity, but the harshness and brutality of a German regime was never far away.

Officers were often shot dead at the windows for ignoring orders to turn out the lights and then there were the debilitating problems of lice, fleas, extreme cold, malnourishment and chronic ill health.

The men also saw the cryptic-looking wryneck
The men also saw the cryptic-looking wryneck

Their story arrives in Cambridge later this month when Mr Niemann will give a talk to the Cambridge group of the RSPB on January 17. It is an oration which weaves elements of a harsh POW regime, birds and the lives of the four men into a tale of survival, endurance and adventure.

The men all had their favourite birds while they were in captivity: Buxton chose the Redstart, Waterston the Wryneck (a small woodpecker), and Conder the Goldfinch, while Barrett concentrated on putting together reams of raw data on the activities of all kinds of feathered friends spotted inside and out of the camp.

Their prison observations would be the catalyst for all four to go on and revolutionise the conservation world once the war was over.

Conder, for example, went on to galvanise the RSPB, taking membership in the early 1960s from 20,000 to 200,000 by the time he retired as director a decade later.

Mr Niemann said:"Peter Conder is the main character in the book. I never met him but everyone says he was very self-effacing, never showed off and, after he retired, he lived a simple life in Comberton. He was able to draw people to the RSPB just by the force of his personality. But while these men were in the POW camps it must have been hard living with the thought that the Germans might shoot them before they surrendered.

"As time went on though, and the Germans knew they were going to lose, they treated the soldiers better. It is an amazing story really."

The men spent time in different POW camps but mainly at Warburg - halfway between Hanover and Cologne - and Eichstatt. They launched a birdwatching society in each one and even managed to erect nesting boxes.

Their story is so compelling that it is perhaps mystifying it has not found its way on to the small screen.

Mr Niemann, a birdwatcher himself, added:"There have been negotiations going on for years about turning it into something on TV. I am hopeful that something will happen this year but I've been saying that for years now. George Waterston was driven for the rest of his life about protecting the Ospreys in Scotland.

"These men had big personalities who were shaped by extraordinary circumstances.

"John Barrett, who was at Cambridge, would probably have had an ordinary life if it hadn't been for the war. He wasn't tremendously motivated to do anything much. Indeed, they were four men who would have had pretty ordinary lives but for the war. But after the war they suffered from people being quite abusive to them because they had been captured. For those who were POWs, it wasn't something they liked to raise."

After the war years, Waterston became leader of conservation in late 20th-century Scotland.

He launched 'Operation Osprey', deciding that the best way to safeguard the nation's rarest birds of prey was not to hide them away in secrecy, but to open up their lives to the world. Millions of visitors have now trooped to Loch Garten reserve to watch the antics of these wonderful birds.

Buxton went on to become an Oxford don and the author of an acclaimed book, The Redstart. Much of the research for one of Britain's most beautiful birds was conducted while he was in German custody.

The quartet may have spent some of the war behind barbed wire, but their love of birds changed the conservation world .

Mr Niemann's talk takes place at St John's Hall, Hills Road, Cambridge, on January 17 at 7.15pm. Free to group members; £3 on the door for guests.


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