R. E. (Bob) Emmett (1926-2010)

Published on 02 November 2010 in Obituaries

Bob Emmett in May 2001, by Ernest Emmett

Honey-buzzards lose faithful guardian

Born in Lambeth on 14th March 1926, but soon living in Acton, Bob Emmett came quite late to committed birdwatching, stimulated by the enthusiasm of his younger brothers Robin and Ernest and regular Sunday morning walks in Kew Gardens with his father. He had walked very many miles over the Lake District fells before he and his friends took to the Scottish high tops. It was on his quest to climb the ‘Munros’ (summits over 3,000 ft) that he first met with montane species and formed his lasting attachment to raptors. In the late 1950s, and in spite of his less-than-ideal eyesight, Bob became very keen. He and his small band of close friends took to motorbikes and formed the original twitchers, commuting at weekends between London and Norfolk, often propelled by Richard Richardson’s private grapevine. Bob also joined the larger team led by John Parslow that founded and manned the St Agnes Bird Observatory on Scilly, from 1957 to 1969. Bob’s home-processed photographs of the first Northern Waterthrush Seiurus noveboracensis were among the first envy-making rarity images. His other services to the magic isle included new lives for the lighthouse generator, the observatory cooker and any other ‘duff’ object in the way of progress.

It was, however, the summer of 1958 that set the pattern of Bob’s most remarkable service to birds. On 29th June, as a member of a dedicated band led by Howard Medhurst, he shared in the discovery of the first modern nest of Honey-buzzards Pernis apivorus. The location and guarding of the New Forest’s very few pairs became Bob’s chosen duty for the next 50 summers, his study and expertise extended by other hunts for raptors from Finland south to France. Convinced that they should do nothing to increase the disturbance of their ‘ponies’ (alias HBs!), the New Forest Group kept their observations secret and so suffered some criticism from the RSPB and the Rare Breeding Birds Panel. Actually, a few key people had been informed immediately and Max Nicholson (then Director of the Nature Conservancy) slapped SSSI status on the first nest-site forthwith. Even when news of the birds did leak, the original guards still kept their watch logs secret, but one of Bob’s last acts was to part with them on disk for posterity.

Until he changed to a minivan in 1969, Bob’s basic field kit remained uncomplicated (especially compared with that of today’s cyber-birders), being essentially total fitness, ‘ancient bins’, a Broadhurst Clarkson ‘scope and only two wheels. Yet his camping craft and cuisine was four decades ahead of Ray Mears and MasterChef. His ancillaries included the only tins rigged to allow the brewing of fresh tea (from leaves, never bags) aloft in tree canopies. Hence the constant hits of ‘elixir’ that helped to sustain his remarkably patient watches for raptors, and gave rise to my daughter’s nickname for him, ‘Cup of Tea Bob’. Incidentally, he taught cricket and also played football into his forties and squash well past 50! Although his public writing ran only to the odd letter in BB, Bob Emmett was devoted to classical English Literature and true folk music. He had seen every one of The Bard’s plays, often several leading actors over, and had studied the Willughby & Ray Ornithology in great detail, as much for ‘the wonderful prose’ as its early science. In the latter he spotted the intriguing absence from the 1676 ‘British List’ of the Northern Goshawk Accipter gentilis, the only bird of prey that he disliked, for its habit of eating too many members of its own tribe.

In his working life, he was an ace craftsman of the Technical Division of EMI, ‘building the things that inventors dream up but cannot make’. These included an early guidance system for heat-seeking missiles. Nor was such the end of his skills. I remember particularly a mobile gold-plating kit (for tired jewellery) and above all the annual fermentations of heady home-brewed wines which bubbled audibly to a finish in the loft of his home and were distributed to friends under the ‘Em (fruit) Win’ label, as famous a brand as those of Hilda Quick of St Agnes and Dick Homes of the London NHS.

Bob never married but his care for family, friends and ‘fellow slaves’ was repaid in their great affection shown to him in his last weeks. Although he had shrugged off kidney cancer 20 years earlier, Hodgkin’s lymphoma challenged him in 2009. At first the odds were good but Bob succumbed to respiratory collapse on 18th June 2010. He leaves behind scores of people who give thanks for his unpretentious (but not unopinionated) and utterly engaging character. My favourite memory has to be of him at Egginton Sewage-farm, Derbyshire, on 15 March 1964. Our target was a Killdeer Charadrius vociferus and for once Bob was infirm, with a broken leg, plastered up to knee level. Yet he dragged the increasingly sodden and finally loose cast through ‘septic mud’ for three hours of ‘constant lash’ (Bob-eze for pouring rain) and finally got the much-prized Yank. His salute said it all: ‘Brilliant, SALUBRIOUS, well worth a leg!’ Four cheers for you, Bob.

D. I. M. Wallace, with assistance from Pete Colston, Howard Medhurst and Ernest Emmett