For Ronald Lockley

Lately, my thoughts have turned to one of the most admirable Cardiffians of all time, yet someone now largely forgotten in his home town: naturalist, ecologist and writer Ronald Mathias Lockley (1903-2000).

Growing up in Whitchurch, then a rural village surrounded by small farms, the sensitive, solitary child developed a passionate love of the natural world on long summer days blackberrying up the Wenallt, building island dens on the Glamorganshire Canal, bird-watching in the woods and roaming the still beautiful countryside of the Taff valley.  In 1922, after leaving Cardiff High School for Boys, he took on a poultry farm at Began in the lush lower reaches of the Rhymni valley and there created a wildlife haven decades before the conservation movement came into being while formulating advanced ideas about the protection of other species and their habitats.  Then in 1927 he moved to Skokholm (Ynys Sgogwm), a gale-lashed 250-acre island off the Pembrokeshire coast inhabited only by rabbits and sea birds.  On Skokholm Lockley set up the first bird observatory in the UK, pioneered research methods such as bird-ringing that are now standard, and went into the annals of ornithology with his scrupulous collecting of scientific data on Puffins, Manx Shearwaters and Storm Petrels that set the template for all future field naturalists.  In his rejection of the rat race, eschewing of materialism, dedication to self-sufficiency and desire to live in harmony with nature Lockley can now be viewed as a proto-hippy years ahead of his time.

Lockley in the 1930s

Looking out over the Irish Sea from the old farmhouse he rebuilt from scratch, he started writing unsentimental but lyrical observational and autobiographical prose.  His first book, Dream Island, was published in 1930, launching a literary career that spanned seven decades and 55 books through to Dear Islandman, published in 1996 when he was 93.  Combining his writing prowess with his knowledge of birds, in 1934 he collaborated with biologist Julian Huxley (1887-1975) to make the first ever natural history documentary The Private Life of the Gannets, filmed on Grassholm (Ynys Gwales), the most westerly point of Wales.   Huxley directed and Lockley wrote the script for this landmark production which went on to win the 1938 Oscar for Best Short Film.  Usually Ray Milland (1907-1986) is credited with being the first Welsh person to win an Oscar – in 1946 for his performance as an alcoholic in The Lost Weekend – but it was actually Ronald Lockley eight years earlier.

Continuing to trailblaze, Lockley finally left Skokholm in 1950 and moved to Orielton on the mainland near Pembroke where he created a nature reserve in 100 acres of mixed woodland when such a concept was unheard of in the UK.  Orielton would grow to become today’s important environmental education field centre, another lasting Lockley legacy.  But he was only just warming up.  He was instrumental in the founding of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in the teeth of opposition from local landowners, he devised the route of the Pembrokeshire coastal footpath that would turn out to be the first component of today’s all-Wales coast path, and then in 1964 wrote his most influential book, The Private Life of the Rabbit. This study of rabbits’ unique social order acted as the blueprint for Richard Adams’ 1972 anthropomorphic bunny-weepy Watership Down, which to date has sold over 50 million copies worldwide and spawned an acclaimed animated film, a TV series and a theatrical production, as well as Art Garfunkel’s 1979 Number 1 single Bright Eyes – but Ronald can’t be held responsible for that…

In the late 1950s the UK government decreed that the Milford Haven waterway was to be given over to the oil industry.  Lockley led the opposition to London’s dictat with verve, intelligence, scientific reasoning and passion, giving birth to the Green movement and paving the way for all the Green campaigns of the future in the process, but there was no arguing with the Tory government.  Unprecedentedly, the National Parks Commission’s categorical objections were overruled and Whitehall gave the green light for the slaughter of one of the most spectacular waterways in the world.  Then, as now, Wales had no power over either energy policy or strategic planning; the vast Esso refinery opened in 1960 at Herbrandston and this was soon followed by even bigger refineries for Texaco, Gulf and Amoco plus a massive BP oil terminal.  Both sides of the Haven were systematically desecrated by the repulsive lesions of the petro-chemical industry, combining with all the associated storage tanks, roads and jetties to bring heartbreaking visual pollution to the sublime blue panoramas of south Pembrokeshire.  Then there was the material pollution.  It didn’t take long to start oozing: the very first oil tanker to unload in 1960 accidentally spilled most of its cargo and caused devastating damage to the enchanting Sandy Haven creek.  Much worse was to come.  Countless spillages over the years culminated in the inevitable Big One: the Sea Empress disaster of 1996 in which the single-hulled supertanker deposited 72,000 gallons of crude oil into the sea after colliding with St Anne’s Head at the entrance to the Haven in calm weather.  At the time this was the world’s 12th-worst oil spill of all time (today it stands as the 28th-worst).  Hundreds of thousands of birds, fish, invertebrates and plants were killed, 120 miles of the Welsh coastline were contaminated and the superficial clean up cost the public purse £60 million while the culpable port authority was fined just £¾ million and Big Oil forked out precisely nothing.  The deep, lingering, invisible chemical pollution works its insidious way through the eco-systems of west Wales to this day.

Wales has been burdened with supplying the rest of the UK with natural resources for centuries, exploited ruthlessly as a textbook colonial economy deemed to have no interests of its own.  So it was at Milford Haven.  For all the suffering Wales gained zilch.  The short-term construction jobs all went to the oil companies’ imported in-house teams and the promised long-term jobs never amounted to more than 2,000 at their peak, while the wider economy of the Haven was decimated: Milford’s once famous fishing industry disappeared, the rich red soils were lost to agriculture, tourism and recreation withered away. One by one the oil companies departed as they reconfigured their pack-rape of the planet (there are two refineries left today) and Wales could only stand and watch when the Blair government then gave permission for Milford Haven’s next affront in 2003: two gigantic liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals, the biggest in the world, plus a pipeline the width of a dual-carriageway carved from Milford right across southern Wales and through the Brecon Beacons National Park to take the LNG to an installation just over the border in Gloucestershire so as to provide a fifth of England’s gas requirements for a few years.  As Wales has no media worth the name you might not know that zig-zagging under our country for 200 miles is a fat yellow pipe containing some of the most explosive material known to humanity.  There was a committed, intense, Lockley-style campaign against LNG in Wales (again, it might well have passed you by as such dissent goes unreported), but the project was railroaded through anyway.  Until Wales achieves independence and can start dealing with this global-warming abomination, we must keep our fingers crossed that there is no landslip or failure along the pipe’s route.  And Milford residents should pray nightly that the mega-tankers carrying the LNG from Qatar negotiating the narrow entrance where the jetty has been insanely positioned (cheapest option) don’t ever slightly miscalculate their course as the Sea Empress did.   LNG is transported at a temperature of -160C.  A hole in the side of a tanker would mix the liquid with air, causing it to expand in volume by a factor of 600 within moments and simultaneously turn to gas.  Because it is so cold it would form a heavier-than-air, extremely flammable, sea-level gas cloud that would engulf the oil terminals and turn Milford to ash.  There I go again, talking down Welsh property prices…

What of Milford today?  Put it this way: you haven’t seen poverty until you’ve seen Pembrokeshire poverty.  Occupying another planet to the sun-kissed holidays the tourist industry is flogging a few miles north, the town is a boarded-up, blighted dump that makes the ex-mining towns of the valleys look like Bath Spa, while low political involvement and numb alienation are the norm among people ground down by unemployment and hopelessness. Here is yet another melancholy, mutilated corner of Wales, shot through with pain and dispossession, reflected and refracted through the taunting rainbow sheen of a permanent oil slick.

Mercifully, Ronald Lockley did not have to witness all this.  In 1977 he emigrated to New Zealand, in despair at the annihilation of his beloved coast.  He settled on the other side of the world in the Bay of Plenty, there to live to a grand old age.  The magical haunts of his Cardiff youth are long gone: the concrete chaos of the Coryton interchange carved up his bird-filled forest, the shrieking chicanes of the A470 erased his canal hideaways, the M4 pulverised his Began nature reserve.  Trespassing recently near the M4 flyover which crosses the Rhymni valley at Began, I fancied I saw remnants of his Alder and Willow plantations hanging on by the banks of the litter-encrusted Nant Mwlan.  Another lorry-load of tasteless tomatoes from the industrial glasshouses which cover the valley floor stormed past me; pea-brained boy racers in bullying 4x4s swaggered down the lane towards the floodlit golf driving-range; I gave up the search and went home.

And so, I come to the reason why Ronald Lockley has been on my mind…

It has taken just 13 years along the devolution journey for Wales to produce its first home-grown tyrant: First Minister Carwyn Jones. Last month the poster-boy of knee-jerk British Nationalism said that, when Scotland evicts them from the Firth of Clyde, “there will be more than a welcome for the UK’s nuclear submarine fleet in Milford Haven.”  This is the most shocking statement made by any Welsh politician in recorded history and if Labour Party members in Wales are not right now plotting to topple this man then they can have no principles whatsoever left.  Wales the home of the world’s fourth most fearsome nuclear arsenal?  Wales the lair where the British state runs its obscene, £97 billion Trident missile programme in violation of the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Conventions, the UN charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Wales the depository of 200 nuclear warheads each one of which equivalent to 50 Hiroshimas?  Wales the ground-zero of nuclear proliferation? Wales the HQ of warmongering terror? Wales???!!!???  Wales that has never been an aggressor in all its history, that has never threatened any other peoples, that has been in the forefront of the peace movement, the co-operative movement, the internationalist movement and the socialist movement? Wales where the Greenham Common women started their march, where non-nuclear status was declared over 30 years ago by every Welsh council, where the nuclear rains of Chernobyl poisoned our uplands for generations?  Wales???!!!???  And this at Milford Haven of all places!  Oil+ gas+nukes…you could not devise a better recipe for Armageddon.  Without reference either to standing Labour policy or to Labour’s proud history of opposition to nuclear weapons from Aldermaston to CND, and without consulting anybody else in Wales, our First Minister is offering us up as every terrorists number 1 target, as every rogue state’s bullseye, as America’s arsehole and as Britain’s bitch.  Resign Jones.  You are a disgrace to Wales.

The red cliffs of Skokholm

Pictures: NaturCymru; D Milborrow