Botanist, broadcaster and campaigner

Born: January 18, 1933;

Died: December 11, 2019

DAVID Bellamy, who has died aged 86, was a naturalist, environmental campaigner and one of the pioneering figures of conservationism who became one of the best-known figures on television during the 1970s and 1980s, presenting dozens of programmes devoted to wildlife and the outdoors.

With his wild beard, inability to pronounce the letter r, and pop-eyed enthusiasm for all aspects of the natural world, Bellamy seemed ubiquitous on children’s television, and probably did more than anyone other than Sir David Attenborough to encourage an interest in the environment. He was also passionately committed to the subjects to which he introduced his audiences: he was a patron or supporter of literally hundreds of campaigning groups, including the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, the Camping and Caravanning Club, the Galapagos Conservation Trust, the British Naturalists’ Association, the Marine Conservation Society and the British Gamekeepers’ Organisation.

He was such a distinctive presence on the screen that he rapidly became a favourite of impersonators: Lenny Henry’s career was in large part launched by his frequent take-offs on Bellamy on the riotous ITV children’s programme Tiswas; Bellamy was a regular on the more staid BBC equivalent, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop. His own series included Life in our Sea (1970), Bellamy on Botany (1972), Bellamy’s Britain (1974), Up a Gum Tree (1980), Bellamy’s Backyard Safari (1981), Bellamy’s New World (1983), Bellamy’s Seaside Safari (1985), Moa’s Ark (1990), Bellamy Rides Again, Wetlands (both 1991) and Upstream with Bellamy (1996).

In the mid 1990s, however, after quarter of a century as a fixture on the small screen, Bellamy found himself less in demand. He attributed this change in his fortunes to his campaigning stance on two (out of many hundreds of) issues: his sceptical position on climate change, and his support for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. In 1997 he stood in the general election in Huntingdon against the incumbent, the then Prime Minister John Major, for Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party – something he later described as a mistake that had cost him his career.

His dismissal of man-made global warming as “poppycock”, and his opposition to the construction of land-based wind farms, which “don’t work”, meanwhile, led to his being dropped by a number of prominent conservation groups that had previously capitalised on his public recognition. But though his media appearances dried up, he continued to be involved in conservation issues, especially in County Durham, where he lived, near Bishops Aukland.

David James Bellamy was born on January 18 1933 in south London, and educated at Cheam Road Junior School and then Sutton County Grammar School. His parents, Thomas and Winifred (née Green), were strict Baptists, and David was a bookish child, with an interest in English and (improbably, given his later burly figure) ballet, before having his enthusiasm for science sparked, and studying zoology, botany, physics and chemistry.

After school, he worked for a spell in an ink factory and as a plumber, before a time as a lab assistant at Ewell Technical College, from where he went on to Chelsea College of Science and Technology (now part of King’s College London), to take an honours degree in botany. He completed a PhD at Bedford College in 1960, and began work as a lecturer in the botany department at Durham University.

He first came to public attention as a result of a scientific paper he published in Nature in 1967 on the environmental impact of the Torrey Canyon oil spill off the south-west coast of England, having been a consultant during the subsequent investigation. It led to a number of television interviews, and he was spotted as a natural for the medium.

By the mid-1970s, he had presented or appeared on dozens of programmes, both for schools and colleges and mainstream audiences; by the end of the decade, he was established as one of the country’s best-known TV figures, had been the subject on both Desert Island Discs and This Is Your Life, and won Bafta’s Richard Dimbleby award for factual broadcasting in 1979. He had also turned out a dozen books (he was to write almost 50), many of them tied in with his television work.

In the 1980s, he became the figurehead for the I-Spy series, and worked with the Royal Society for Nature Conservation on a series of guides to nature walks. He popped up on Pebble Mill, Songs of Praise and Blue Peter regularly, as well as making cameo appearances on the likes of Grange Hill, The Kenny Everett Show and, inevitably, The Lenny Henry Show.

He was also an active campaigner on scores of environmental issues; in 1983, he was arrested in Australia during a protest against a proposed dam and the following year leapt from a pier into the North Sea to draw attention to marine conservation. He was an early campaigner against the use of plastics.

He became an honorary professor at Durham in 1980 and Special Professor of Botany at Nottingham in 1987; he also held academic posts in New Zealand, to which he made frequent visits, and which was the subject of the series Moa’s Ark, which won an award in 1990. He was appointed OBE in 1994, and received numerous honours and awards from a range of charities and universities. At his home in the north-west of England, he kept a wide range of animals, including for a while a crocodile he had acquired in Australia.

David Bellamy married, in 1959, Rosemary Froy, with whom he had a son, Rufus, before adopting Henrietta, Brighid, Eoghain, and Hannah. She died last year; he died on December 11 and is survived by their children.