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Simms, Eric Arthur (1921–2009), naturalist and broadcaster, was born on 24 August 1921 at The Cottage, Ladbroke Square Gardens, North Kensington, London, the youngest of the three sons and one daughter of Levi Simms (1872–1958), head gardener of Ladbroke Square Gardens, and his wife, Amy Margaret, née Coles (1884–1962). He was educated at the local elementary school, winning a scholarship to Latymer Upper School. From there in 1939 he followed his elder brothers to Oxford, where he read modern history at Merton College, joining the university air squadron. He was called up for war service shortly after taking a war-shortened degree in 1941. Following flying training in the USA and Canada he became second pilot and bomb aimer in a Lancaster of 626 squadron based at RAF Wickenby in Lincolnshire, flying twenty-seven sorties over heavily defended targets in Germany, including Berlin. In 1944 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the citation noting his ‘complete disregard for danger in the face of the heaviest enemy defences’ and praising the ‘skill and determination which have been an inspiration to the crews with which he flies’ (The Guardian, 23 March 2009). During his posting in Lincolnshire he met a Women's Auxiliary Air Force officer, (Nora) Thelma Jackson (1920–2001), daughter of Charles Jackson, munitions worker. They married at St Paul's, Oxgate, Middlesex, on 23 December 1943, and later adopted a daughter, Amanda, and a son, David.

After demobilization Simms took a diploma in education, subsequently teaching English at Stratford upon Avon High School and becoming an active member of the West Midland Bird Club and of its research committee, which discovered the cross-county bird migration route from the Severn to the Wash. In 1950 he moved to London to join the BBC as a wildlife sound recordist, working with the recording pioneer Ludwig Koch and succeeding him as director of wildlife sound recording on his retirement in 1951. Simms himself was also a pioneer, introducing the use of portable magnetic tape recorders, replacing the cumbersome and very heavy equipment and cabling in use until then, and employing parabolic reflectors for the first time. The quality of broadcast sounds was improved immensely, and he recorded many wildlife ‘firsts’ including stone curlew and peregrine, and captured the sounds of a chick within the egg communicating with its parent on the nest. His career with the BBC flourished from the foundation of the radio series The Countryside in 1952, featuring many of his wildlife recordings, which ran for thirty-eight years and made him a household name as the BBC's resident ornithologist. In 1961 he joined the BBC Schools TV service, remaining until he turned freelance in 1967. Ultimately he made more than 7000 radio broadcasts and over 700 television appearances.

Simms was also a prolific author with twenty books to his name, from Bird Migrants (1952) to British Larks, Pipits and Wagtails (1992). Included in his publications were no less than four volumes in the prestigious Collins New Naturalist series, a record that still stood at the time of his death; his autobiography, Birds of the Air (1976); and an unusual but well-received title, Public Life of the Street Pigeon (1979), which explored the long association of pigeons with man and how they manage to thrive so effectively in a man-made environment.

The Street Pigeon and Birds of Town and Suburb (1975) reflected Simms's intense interest in urban birds, stemming from his childhood and rekindled on his return to London to work for the BBC. He carried out a thirty-year study of the birds of the Dollis Hill/Welsh Harp area in what became the London borough of Brent, and was instrumental in securing protection from development for the Welsh Harp reservoir, which remained a magnet and refuge particularly for migratory waterfowl in the winter. He served on the council of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (1953–63); on the advisory panel of the World Wide Fund for Nature (1977–86); and on the Royal Parks Advisory Committee (1972–9).

In 1980 Simms retired to the village of South Witham in Lincolnshire, where with typical energy he set about establishing a conservation area alongside a slip-road to the notoriously busy A1 trunk road. Provided by the local council with a high-visibility jacket to make him more obvious to passing motorists, he devoted some 600 hours each year to cutting back invasive scrub and pulling up unwanted aliens such as oilseed rape and ragwort. As a result the award-winning nature reserve became a haven for birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects—especially twenty-nine butterfly species—and a limestone flora of more than 250 species (excluding grasses) including the rare wasp orchid. It also produced a colourful spring display of cowslips, over which at the height of the season he had to mount an all-day guard to protect them from being dug up by enthusiasts illegally seeking garden plants.

Even among the impressive list of biologists of his era Simms was a polymath, his wide array of interests accompanied by investigative enthusiasm and, necessarily, innovation and invention. Particularly in sound recording, little equipment was obtainable off the shelf and equally little field guidance or knowledge was available, yet much remained to be accomplished. For his time the results were technically outstanding but, perhaps more importantly, with them he enthralled and enlightened millions of radio listeners. He died of a chest infection in the County Hospital in Lincoln on 1 March 2009 and was survived by his two children.

Jim Flegg

Sources  

E. Simms, Birds of the air (1976) · P. Marren, The new naturalists (1995) · Daily Telegraph (18 March 2009) · The Times (21 March 2009); (30 March 2009) · The Guardian (23 March 2009) · The Independent (9 June 2009); (12 June 2009) · www.westmidlandbirdclub.com/obituaries/SimmsE, accessed on 26 March 2012 · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

under £130,000: probate, 30 Oct 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales