In Memoriam Lawrence Skipp

LawrenceLawrence Skipp, who died in a road accident in the Forest of Dean on 2 July at the age of only 38, was a general naturalist of exceptionally broad interests.  I have known him for fifteen years or more, and usually met him in the hides and lanes round the reserves at Ashleworth and Coombe Hill.  His base was in the Hartpury/ Tibberton area, and the Severn Vale and the Forest of Dean of the county were the two areas where he was particularly active. I am grateful to his father, Dave, who has provided more details about the life and interests of his son.

He would sit for hours in the hides, usually wearing his green and brown camouflage gear, often very late in the day, or even into the night, since he knew that birds often become more active at that time and do interesting things that can’t be seen by day.  As Dave notes ‘Several times this year I have been in a hide with him around dusk time, when you can hardly see your hand in front of your face, and there he is scribbling away without really looking at what he was writing. He seemed to have a knack at writing “blind”.  I will miss him coming round to check on weather forecasts and sighting websites, to be followed by a running commentary from him on what he expected would be seen in the next few days here & there based on wind / weather/ migration patterns’.

In his youth, as his father relates ‘Lawrence was a keen Gloucester Young Ornithologists Club member, a captain of the Hartpury School Nature Team and a mean sprinter on the track. He always had a wildlife pond wherever he lived, and would spend hours with his backside in the air and his head at the water surface, marvelling at the antics of the newts and general pond life as they went about their daily business. When he wasn’t doing that, he was reading natural history books, drawing, or bird watching. His first real job was with the Gloucestershire Trust for Nature Conservation, until he unfortunately suffered a back problem that needed spinal surgery which left him plagued with pain. Later he did voluntary care work for the Animal Rescue Centre, allied to Hartpury College, where they called him the “Bird-Man”. He was always coming home covered in cuts, bites and bird poop but he absolutely loved it. He was the sort of person who wouldn’t kill a fly, but he would fairly happily feed it to the resident wild spiders in the webs around his flat unless of course it was something special or one he hadn’t seen before, in which case he would capture it under a glass tumbler to view and sketch it thoroughly before release’.

His strength was his attention to detail, of which there are many testimonies in the hide log books at Ashleworth and Coombe Hill, in his characteristic neat and elegant handwriting, done with a fine nibbed pen: he had real artistic flair. As his father notes ‘He loved his art, and was gifted with a keen eye for detail and an ability to transfer it to a beautifully drawn replica. He was so excited when was asked to contribute bird studies for inclusion in the “The Birds of Gloucestershire”, but unfortunately had a bad car accident in 2011 which left him wheelchair bound for almost a year and unable to follow that through. His love of nature, art, and bird-life in particular kept him strong and got him through those bad times back up to relative fitness and back out into “the field” and into drawing again. He never really fully recovered, and pain still plagued him daily, but he soldiered on and fought his demons head on.  Perhaps that’s why he loved his “camo-gear” so much, as you would never really catch sight of him out of uniform, ready for action in the hunt for an elusive rarity or just simply marvelling in the beauty of the humble iridescent Starling’.

He did find quite a number of rare birds in the county: he was one of the few who saw the Scarlet Rosefinch at Ashleworth; he was the one who actually identified the Stilt Sandpiper at Coombe Hill (after Les Brown had seen it without identifying it); he found the singing Spotted Crake at Coombe Hill (late at night of course) last year.  I remember him persuading half a dozen of us to join him at Ashleworth round midnight in early June, when an unusually loud and voluble warbler song had convinced him a Marsh Warbler had turned up: it proved to be ‘just’ a Sedge Warbler, one that had probably failed elsewhere, and had moved in for a fresh breeding attempt, which would explain the sudden bursts of song.  He was with us on 10 May this year when Coombe Hill had such a succession of unusual migrants brought in by a south east wind – Grey Plover, Turnstone and Sanderling, plus overflying Black and Arctic Terns, and he was the one who first picked out the terns.  The log books reveal him writing down details of things as they happened in front of him: he would record individual variations in the plumages of Curlews as they arrived (he was the one who most frequently recorded the colour ringed bird at Ashleworth, and he showed me Curlew chicks in a hayfield near Haw Bridge); he recorded not only birds, but invertebrates too, especially dragonflies.  One of the last text messages I received from him (in his usual textspeak) on 19 June ran as follows: “Would you mind asking Ingrid Twissel if teneral Lestes sponsa ever show pale pterostigma pls?  If not, i saw Lestes viridis at coombe the day I last saw you”.  Sadly he died before I could pass on Ingrid’s reply, so let me pass it on here: “Chalcolestes viridis (Willow Emerald Damselfly) is larger than Lestes sponsa (Emerald Damselfly), and has pale wing-spots outlined in black, but at present is only found in south-east England. Other immature/teneral species of Lestes have pale wing-spots which darken on maturity, so this is likely to be what Lawrence saw. L.sponsa is the only species that breeds at present in Gloucestershire. The only other sighting of another Emerald (Southern Emerald Lestes barbarus) occurred on the R. Avon, east of Keynsham in August 2006.”

So sad that such a gifted and observant naturalist should be snatched away so soon, and that many of his observations die with him.  There will be a simple non-religious ceremony at Gloucester Crematorium at 3.p.m. on Monday 1 August, at which all will be welcome.


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