How on earth did this all happen! I grew up in war-torn London,
joined the Royal Air Force at age 17 and became a PT Instructor,
specialising in outdoor pursuits and aircrew survival with a dash of
mountain rescue in my spare time. After retiring in 1983 I built
a recording studio in Grantown on Spey and to pay for it all I sang my
little heart out at night for the grannies on the bus tours up and down
Strathspey. Such a background hardly seems ideal preparation for a
career in wildlife conservation.
We pick up the story in the late 90s when the gigs were still going strong but the recording studio was nearing the end of its useful life. With business pressure much reduced I spent a lot of time in the outdoors Munro bagging and canoeing which sparked an interest in photography, so I converted part of the recording studio into a dark room, digital photography not yet having arrived. Wildlife is of course highly photogenic, and I suppose it was unsurprising that my photography headed in that direction.
Wildlife conservation activists are not slow to lure likely souls into their nets and before long I was roped in to help monitor osprey nests. At the same time, the local newly formed badger group built a badger hide, but the group quite soon collapsed (don’t ask) and the landowner was stuck with the hide which he asked me to run and I did so for the next twenty five years. As you can imagine, these events were hugely beneficial to my photographic ambitions and the resulting images formed the basis of public talks for tourists and local groups, which I was happy to give when time permitted. I was also able to sell printed copies of the pictures at my gigs in the evenings.
At that time, a new initiative was emerging: to reintroduce beavers into Scotland. My wife Heather and I joined the conversation almost at the outset, helping to create the Scottish Beaver Network and building a website for the new group. We also helped to build a beaver lodge on an estate in Perthshire ahead of the arrival of some beavers for a private project; this was the first beaver lodge to be built in Scotland for 400 years. This early involvement with beavers was to prove significant a few years later.
Somewhere around 2004 it became known that the North committee of the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT)was looking for a new member and it was suggested that due to my activities over the previous decade I might be useful to the committee, so I volunteered and was accepted. Two years later I was asked to represent the North on the trust’s main council, which I agreed to do, albeit with some trepidation at the prospect of working at such a dizzy level.
Things then happened very fast. In what felt like the blink of an eye, The SWT Council was, for good reasons, slashed in size, SWT and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) formed a partnership to attempt to reintroduce beavers to Scotland, a project which due to my interest in beavers, I was asked to Chair, and shortly after that I was appointed Chairman of the SWT Council itself.
I was terrified! Fortunately, there were several weeks before I actually took over and I spent the time reading, unashamedly asking for advice from more experienced people than I and generally preparing as best I could for the task ahead. Miraculously it all worked out very well.
Meanwhile, back at home the Boat of Garten residents had created a Community Company to act as an umbrella for all the village groups and so we created a wildlife group to manage the village wildlife activities including the badger hide. Guess who the Chair was! And did I mention who was captain of the Abernethy Golf Club at that time? No? Then perhaps I shouldn’t because it all sounds too much. Frankly, it probably was but life can be like that; feast and famine, drought and flood.
Back up at the sharp end, the job of SWT Chair involved a great deal more than just breaking up the fights at Council meetings. It also meant representing the Trust at National and International events and sitting on various committees. One of my first duties was to be a member of the Queen’s welcoming party at Holyrood Palace for the Pope when he visited Edinburgh.
I was also an ex officio member of the Council of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts (RSWT) and attended their quarterly meetings, usually at Newark, and their AGM and other events at a variety of venues. The RSWT Countries Committee met twice per year and the four UK Countries took it in turns to host meetings and each meeting was Chaired by the local Chair. My first meeting as host was preceded by dinner for all the delegates at the Scottish Parliament, hosted by the Environment Minister. Similar arrangements were made for meetings in Ulster, Cardiff and London so I was fortunate to meet and have discussions with senior decision makers across the UK. Looking back, it was good to be heard but whether we were actually listened to is another matter.
Scotland’s wildlife governance at that time was guided by the Scottish Biodiversity Committee which was Chaired by the current Environment Minister who during my time was Roseanna Cunningham MSP. SWT had a seat at the table and our CEO and I took it in turns to attend and push for better treatment of Scotland’s wild places and wild creatures.
Moving on to financial affairs, funding for community and biodiversity projects has always been difficult to find, so the UK government created The Landfill Communities Fund which provided funding for such projects up and down the UK. The scheme was managed by the waste disposal companies themselves through a separate arm of their businesses which they set up expressly for the purpose. Biffa was one such company and Biffa-Award was their fund-giving branch on whose Board I sat for three years, representing the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. During that time we distributed many millions of pounds among deserving projects across the UK.
While all this was going on, the beaver reintroduction trial was getting under way. The license was granted in 2008 and a year was spent doing preparatory science, engaging staff, staging all sorts of public awareness-raising events and catching and quarantining the beavers. Then, in May 2009, the release of the first beavers took place in the Knapdale forest in Argyll. The story of the trial would fill a book, but only warrants a brief mention in this article. Suffice it to say the whole business was incredibly stressful for all concerned. On the plus side, to have led the first ever reintroduction of an extinct mammal into the UK is something I will always be proud of.
Which brings to mind the whole question of the reintroduction of lost species. In order to deal with this, Scottish Natural Heritage (now called NatureScot) created a body called the Scottish National Reintroductions Forum in which representatives of all shades of opinion could work together to provide a framework for future projects and I was pleased to be one of the founding appointees. It achieved some remarkable early success with non-controversial species but more difficult issues such as lynx reintroduction remain unresolved to this day. Great pity.
Speaking of cats, there’s the question of the highly endangered Scottish Wildcat. I stepped down from my six-year term as SWT Chair in 2014, expecting that would be the end of my working at that sort of level, but only two years later I was asked to take on the independent Chair role for Scottish Wildcat Action, a Scottish Government led attempt to save the wildcat from extinction. I served in the role for two enjoyable years, working with some of the people who to this day are still working with wildcats in a new RZSS project to breed a new population of wildcats.
I’ll now do some name-dropping, starting with some Royals. In 2015 I was awarded the OBE for conservation work and I received the award from Her Majesty at Holyrood Palace. We had a minor disagreement over pine martens, but that’s another story. HRH Prince Charles is patron of SWT so as the Chairman I got to meet him from time to time, usually at his house near Balmoral for a couple of hours each time. HRH The Princess Royal is patron of RZSS, SWT’s partners in the beaver trial, so as leader of the project I got to meet her at Knapdale. She was also Patron of a Woodland Trust project which was part-funded by Biffa so I got to meet her again at Buckingham Palace and next day in Chelsea. She called me the Beaver Man, which caused a few sniggers.
Still name-dropping, wildlife is liked by the media, so I was invited to appear in various radio and tv programmes. These included See Hear, Nature’s Calendar, Wild Britain, Springwatch and Winterwatch as well as various news and political programmes such as Politics Live on a Sunday. I did not find such work particularly enjoyable, but the exposure was good for our projects and it was an enormous privilege to work with such great pros as Simon King, Gordon Buchanan, Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan, Ray Mears, Nick Baker, Mike Dilger and George McGavin.
With all this heady talk of exotic species such as ospreys, beavers and wildcats and rubbing shoulders with the great and the good up and down the country it would be easy to forget the humble way in which this all began - with badgers. At first it was mostly just taking people to the hide and surveying the local area for setts. Then, back in 1999 or thereabouts, I signed up as one of the founder members of a new organisation called Scottish Badgers and for much of the next two decades I served on its committee in various roles, including Vice Chair for a while. I remain grateful to all my badgery pals for their steadying friendship throughout the crazy years.
So what now? At the age of 81 the time came to relax, play golf, travel, make movies and write music so I withdrew from most of the committee work that occupied so much of my time for so many years. Instead, I concentrated on local conservation efforts in the Cairngorms, particularly for badgers, pine martens, crested tits and goldeneye ducks. On the wider front, I have recently been referred to as a Grandee or Elder Statesman of conservation and on that basis I occasionally get asked for my opinion on this or that. That’s really nice, but frankly it’s a great relief to have now swapped the suit and shiny shoes for a scruffy fleece and muddy wellies. More recently declining health has further limited what I can do so that is more or less that. Looking back, my life has been full of action and interest – I would wish it on anyone.
Allan Bantick OBE
To contact Allan please email email@example.com
or phone: +44(0)1479 831768 or +44(0)7787 323264
or write to: Allan Bantick OBE,
23 Craigie Avenue, Boat of Garten
Inverness-shire PH24 3BL Scotland