Peter Tilbrook, nature conservation leader in the Highlands and Islands, and Antarctic ecology pioneer

Born: December 12, 1938;

Died: July 18, 2022

For many people who knew Dr Peter Tilbrook, who lived in Cromarty and played an active role in community and environmental life, it has been a revelation to learn about his pre-retirement life as an Antarctic ecologist and later as founder director for North West Scotland with Scottish Natural Heritage (now NatureScot).

His early years were prescient. Born in Romford, Essex in 1938, to parents Will (a cabinet maker) and May, Peter had a keen interest in nature from an early age, frequently cycling to investigate wildlife and fossil sites in the nearby countryside. A keen sportsman (playing football and cricket to a high level), he embarked on epic cycle trips with friends, including a 1300mile trip to the Mediterranean, aged just 17.

Graduating in zoology at Durham University, in 1961, he was recruited by the then FIDS (Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey) to develop a biological research programme on Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands. Lying 600km from the Antarctic Peninsula, life there on land and in the soils is so simple it allows biologists a rare opportunity to understand fundamental processes impossible to unravel in more complex ecosystems.

At that time the Durham zoology department, led by the redoubtable Professor Jim Cragg, was one of the best training grounds for animal ecologists in Britain. It had a particularly close link with the remote field station at Moor House National Nature Reserve, high in the North Pennines, where a succession of students researched the role of invertebrate species in upland and peatland ecosystems. A Durham-trained zoologist, with an interest in extreme environments, Peter was an obvious choice to study the little-known soil fauna in Antarctica.

Originally created at the end of the Second World War, to sustain British territorial claims in the Antarctic Peninsula, the purpose of FIDS was to fly the flag, map the terrain, describe the rocks (and their potential mineral value) and contribute meteorological information as an aid to weather forecasting in the southern ocean where whaling was then an important industry.

But, in 1961, the Antarctic Treaty froze territorial claims and opened all lands and ice shelves south of 60 degrees south for peaceful scientific exploration. FIDS moved with the times to strengthen and broaden its scientific activities. Its biological programme – hitherto largely concerned with birds and seals – expanded at pace. And FIDS changed its name, becoming the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on 1 January 1962.

Appointed base leader on Signy Island, and spending two and a half years researching the soil arthropods and nematodes, Peter identified a number of species new to science, with several later bearing his name. He undertook wider work on seals, penguins and other seabirds. On return to the UK, he continued to work for BAS, and was awarded the prestigious Polar Medal in 1967. After further research on Signy with colleague Bill Block, in 1971-72, Peter was awarded a PhD in 1974.

Leaving the BAS in 1975, Peter moved to Inverness to work for the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC). His stint lasted 21 years, first as deputy regional officer for North West Scotland. In 1984, following Niall Campbell’s retirement, Peter led statutory nature conservation work in the region, and was promoted to a founding director role in Scottish Natural Heritage in 1992.

The early days were challenging with huge demands – and expectations – of the north especially in relation to energy, industrial and tourism developments. In his Inverness office in Fraser Darling House (named after the ecologist and conservationist so prominently associated with writing about the environmental health of the Highlands and Islands), Peter was an outstanding ambassador. From his first-storey office with a desk and tables creaking under files and associated papers, and presided over by a monstrous Swiss cheese plant, Peter led a strong team to get the best for the region’s nature for the next 13 years.

He was at the heart of the challenge to government grant-aided forestry planting in the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland (now a prospective World Heritage Site). This proved to be a divisive and decisive issue in both the confrontation between nature conservation and development, and the future organisation of nature conservation in Great Britain.

UK and Scottish ministers were deeply involved, and eventually delivered a two-fold decision for the Flow Country: cessation of the then forestry grant scheme and protection of large areas of peatland. In fact, this had far wider ramifications, for following on from this, the Government also announced the break-up of the NCC, followed by the creation, first of NCC Scotland, and then SNH in 1992.

Peter and his colleagues based in Inverness and Golspie had the unenviable task of notifying Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in the face of forestry threats. These were turbulent times, and with a skilled team of colleagues, in 1992, Peter devised a novel mechanism for working with the land managers – The Peatland Management Scheme. It was a great success, for it supported peatland maintenance and management and variants of this model are now used across rural parts of Britain and Ireland.

Further challenges crossed Peter’s desk, not least the lead into and involvement in the lengthy public inquiry regarding the Lingerbay (Lingreabhagh) Super Quarry in South Harris (which ultimately led to victory for Harris and the nature conservation movement). In many confrontational situations, Peter garnered respect across government, developers and conservationists through a calm and robustly credible articulation of the case for protecting nature. As a leader and manager, he had a good eye for creativity, commitment and potential. Steeped in the scientific basis of nature conservation, he played a steadying role in the formation of SNH

After retirement, Peter took on voluntary roles for several environmental charities, notably the Scottish Wildlife Trust, John Muir Trust, and Moray Firth Partnership. He espoused green living (building an energy efficient home), and enjoyed hillwalking, sports and travelling until his health deteriorated.

Tirelessly campaigning for environmental and social causes, he was warmly respected for his strong and principled convictions, generous encouragement of colleagues, and unswerving friendships. He is survived by his wife Fran, daughters Cathy and Georgia, and four grandchildren.