R. B. (Dick) Treleaven (1920-2009)

Published on 11 November 2010 in Obituaries

Dick Treleaven at his favourite Peregrine Falcon eyrie, ‘Black Rock’ in north Cornwall, July 1995. Photo by Denis Corley

Dick was recognised as one of the foremost authorities on the Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus and his extraordinary knowledge of and infectious enthusiasm for the bird brought him into contact with specialists all over the world. Born in 1920, he went almost straight from Dulwich School into military service and served with distinction with the 14th Army in Burma. Passing through London on his return, he chanced upon an exhibition of paintings of birds of prey and was immediately smitten with the Peregrine. He had always wished to be an artist and soon afterwards made the acquaintance of the painter who was to be his guide and mentor, George Lodge.

Back with the family outfitters business in Launceston, he looked for Peregrines on the coast of north Cornwall and soon discovered that, although recovering from their wartime destruction, they were still thin on the ground. He became a falconer in order to see the bird up close, but never had any desire to keep a Peregrine himself, preferring the excitement of watching them in the wild. His regular visits to the coast in the late 1940s marked the start of 60 years of dedicated Peregrine fieldwork and observations. In the mid 1950s, he found that the population was declining rapidly for no obvious reason and by 1961 he felt that the time had come to document what was becoming a very worrying situation (Brit. Birds 54: 136-142).

Having been one of the first to raise the alarm, Dick soon made a significant contribution to identifying the problem by sending in for analysis a bird that had clearly died from some form of poisoning. The subsequent investigations eventually established the likely cause and, in due course, but only after a great deal of controversy with the chemical manufacturers, a very effective ban was eventually imposed on certain pesticides. Thereafter the situation slowly began to improve and, in 1969, to Dick’s surprise and delight, he found a pair breeding again in Cornwall. In 1977 he produced his (very readable) first book Peregrine: the private life of the Peregrine Falcon, a first-hand account based largely on his own observations and illustrated with his own drawings. He also published a number of articles, one of which, on the previously neglected subject of hunting, is one of the most important in its field (Z. Tierpsychol. 54: 339-354). I well remember asking Derek Ratcliffe one day about various aspects of hunting and his immediate response was to refer me to Dick Treleaven.

The loss of his wife, Marjorie, in 1980, after 27 years of marriage, was a great blow, while in more recent times he also lost his stepdaughter but kept in close touch with his step-grandson, now living in Australia. Dick was never alone for long, however, as he had a constant stream of visitors. They came not only to watch Peregrines with him but also to draw upon his ever-increasing knowledge of his subject. Amongst them were a number of TV film makers, and after playing a key role in the production of ‘The Princess and the Pirate’ in 1982, he himself became the subject of ‘Skyraiders’ and ‘Winged Assassins’ in 1991. In 1998 he published his second book, In Pursuit of the Peregrine, which incorporated another 20 years of his experiences.

Over six feet tall and very much the artist, Dick cut a colourful figure whether on the cliffs or in his studio. He painted a prodigious amount and was a founder member of the Society of Wildlife Artists, exhibiting each year in London. He had a great love of literature and also ran a local book club, as well as being a keen fisherman. He had numerous other interests too, including motor racing, jazz music, aircraft, rugby and cricket. He was unstinting in giving guidance and advice and was an inspiration to all who met him. His conversation was often tempered with his dry wit and if a visitor pointed out that some aspect of a bird’s behaviour seemed odd, he would explain that the Peregrine obviously hadn’t read the appropriate part of the book on the subject!

In 2007 he was awarded the MBE for services to ornithology. Now the Cornish cliffs are not the same without him – we have lost a remarkable character.

Denis Corley