British Wildlife 34.7 June 2023

Obituary: Gordon Lawrence Woodroffe

Gordon Lawrence Woodroffe CChem FRSC MPhil (1932–2023)

Gordon Woodroffe died on 14th April 2023, aged 90, after a fall at his home in Sinnington, North Yorkshire. Gordon will be best known to seasoned British Wildlife readers as author of the mammals column in the Wildlife reports from October 1993 to October 2019 – an outstanding quarter-century contribution to the magazine. An editor’s note (BW 31(6)), recording Gordon’s retirement, remarked that he had ‘charmed and enlightened’ readers. Gordon also contributed articles on Water Vole ecology (BW 5: 296–303) and Otter conservation (BW 9: 145–153).

Gordon was born in Birmingham on 5th July 1932 and lived in Bourneville, where he attended King Edward’s School, Edgbaston. After a brief spell in a bank, he joined a chemical firm and, in the evenings, studied chemistry at Birmingham Technical College (now Aston University). After National Service, Gordon moved to ICI in Billingham, Teesside, where he spent the rest of his working career. With his wife, Lorna, he became interested in mammal conservation and together they energetically raised funds for WWF. Gordon’s book Wildlife Conservation and the Modern Zoo, published in 1981 and with a foreword by Mrs Elspeth Huxley, explored the controversial and evolving interaction between the two, which remained an interest throughout his life.

After early retirement, Gordon and Lorna moved from Castleton to Sinnington, on the southern edge of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park (NYMNP), where he turned to the plight of Otters on the local rivers. He found, as was typical across England in the 1980s, a sparse and declining population. Around this time, Gordon joined the University of York, where he studied for an M. Phil. on the ecology of riverside mammals in the NYMNP under the supervision of John (later, Sir John) Lawton. His thesis (1988) highlighted for the first time the lethal interaction between the fragmentation of Water Vole populations and predation by feral American Mink. Gordon was an Honorary Fellow at the university for nearly a decade.

In the late 1980s, Gordon initiated an Otter reintroduction programme for the NYMNP, supported by the Vincent Wildlife Trust. Between 1990 and 1993, 21 Otters in total were released into the River Derwent catchment (including four by English Nature, as it was then) and an additional four into the River Esk system. Subsequent standardised spraint surveys by Gordon, ably assisted by Laura Winter and Cara Morgan (a PhD student), documented the presence of Otters at increasingly distant locations. Although other threats to Otters were ameliorating during this period (reduced use of organochlorine pesticides, a decrease in shooting and trapping etc), it seems highly likely that these reintroductions served to hasten the return of the species to the NYMNP and North Yorkshire more generally.

During this period, Gordon became increasingly involved with the Mammal Society. He was a member of Council for 11 years and edited the Society’s Mammal News for almost a decade, overseeing its transformation from a black-and-white newsletter to the full-colour, lively, quarterly magazine we have today. He wrote first and second editions of two Mammal Society booklets, The Otter and The Water Vole, and co-authored chapters on the same species in the monumental fourth edition of Mammals of the British Isles. In 2000, Gordon was awarded the Mammal Society Silver Medal in recognition of his ‘outstanding services to mammalogy’.

More locally, Gordon was a valued member of the Yorkshire Mammal Group (YMG), which he joined soon after moving to Sinnington. In 1999, the YMG oversaw the first reintroduction of Hazel Dormice to North Yorkshire and Gordon joined the small group that monitored the population until, sadly, it disappeared again almost a decade later. He was also an active member of the Ryedale Naturalists, for whom he served as mammal recorder.

Gordon was a generous friend and a wonderful companion, at home and in the field. He had a quick wit, a wicked sense of humour and a wealth of anecdotes relating to his early fundraising for WWF, his time in the army, and his life at ICI. Tales of hostile interactions with aggressive landowners and others during his Otter surveys were a speciality. Gordon’s Quaker background led him to take part in several peaceful protests, notably at RAF Fylingdales, the radar base in the NYMNP. He read avidly, enjoying natural history books and biographies of prominent political and military figures, and had a lifelong interest in birds, particularly raptors. Latterly, he took up watercolour painting. Gordon’s wife, Lorna, died in 2019.

In 2000, Gordon organised the planting of 1.25ha of native broadleaf woodland as part of the Woodland Trust’s ‘Woods on your Doorstep’ project to mark the new millennium. Northeast of Sinnington village, the wood forms an extension to the semi-natural Stables Wood and is close to the River Seven, now replete with Otters. It was named Roffe Wood, a fitting and living memorial to a great naturalist.

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