John Buxton, MBE: Countryman and conservationist’s key role in the return of cranes to Norfolk after 400 years

John Buxton has written a book about cranes. The cranes nested at Horsey hall for 400 years and then disappeared. They returned 35 years ago. 
PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY
John Buxton has written a book about cranes. The cranes nested at Horsey hall for 400 years and then disappeared. They returned 35 years ago. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Monday, January 20, 2014
8:36 AM

An internationally-renowned wildlife sanctuary was established on a Norfolk estate by countryman John Buxton, who has died at his home, aged 86.

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The naturalist and farmer played a vital role in the return of breeding common cranes to Norfolk, lost to the county for about 400 years.

His book, The Norfolk Cranes’ Story, published three years ago, described how the chance arrival of a pair of Eurasian cranes in the late 1970s led to their spread across eastern England and into the West Country.

The self-confessed “craniac,” who shared his enthusiasm with his wife of 55 years, Bridget, was always modest about his achievements. “It has been an extraordinary privilege to both witness and be guardian of Norfolk’s cranes,” he told the EDP.

When the first pair arrived on September 13, 1979, he managed to keep the secret for more than five years as the birds became established. Three years later, this pair fledged a male chick and history was made at Horsey in 1982. These highly-intelligent but shy birds were to enjoy privacy for a couple of years on this remote estate.

His father, Capt Anthony Buxton, inspired by the bird-rich marshes and the sight of rare marsh harriers, had bought the 1,700-acre Horsey Hall estate, complete with mere and 300 acres of reeds, in 1930. However, the family did not move to Horsey Hall for two years because it had been let to Lady Kennett, whose son Peter Scott would become one of the country’s foremost wildlife campaigners.

But John Joseph Buxton, born in Geneva in 1927 where his father was with League of Nations, was just four years old when he had his first memory of Horsey. “I remember the water, and the reedbeds, in particular, always fascinated me,” he later wrote in his 133-page book.

As the second generation steward of the family’s Horsey estate, as a child he had witnessed the destruction caused by the inundation of the sea in February 1938. Having been at Ampleforth in North Yorkshire when the sea broke through, when he finally got home, he recalled boating across Norfolk’s inland sea. It had caused significant damage as the natural order was turned on its head – cod were netted at Horsey Mill and grey mullet caught in Hickling Broad. At its peak, the flood covered 20 square miles (7,469 acres) embracing Horsey Mere, Hickling Broad, Heigham Sound and Martham Broad, as the perimeter of the inland sea was 43 miles.

When he took over the management of the estate in 1958, it became his life’s work to nurture this special part of the coast and to allow wildlife to flourish. Over the years, other species including bittern and marsh harrier returned and raised young.

After serving in the Royal Norfolk Regiment, mostly stationed in Germany from 1946, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read agriculture before spending a year near Woodbridge on a mainly arable farm belonging to his cousin, Giles Foster.

He went to Canada, working on the prairies and in pulp mills before returning home in 1955. Three years later, he married Bridget de Bunsen at Sheringham’s Catholic Church.

He made films for Anglia’s Survival series after he was asked – at three day’s notice – by Aubrey, later Lord Buxton, to fly to Uganda to make a programme about white rhinos. Further projects for the wildlife cameraman were in Ethiopia, Iran, Pakistan and he filmed whaling, off Iceland.

His patience and understanding of wildlife led to another coup. While filming nesting partridges for Survival, The Vanishing Hedgerows, he was in a field watching three Suffolk punch horses on the Barsham estate, near Walsingham, in north Norfolk. To his amazement, one of the horses gently picked up one egg from the nest, chewed it and spat out the shell.

“It ate three eggs before I chased it away,” said Mr Buxton. “The head keeper did not believe it until I showed him the film.”

He led a field expedition programme to Ethiopia in January 1972 looking for two near-extinct species and to research birdlife of a mountainous region at 10,000 ft in the Simien Mountains.

His work on the estate, which was given to the National Trust in 1948 and later leased back to the family for 99 years initially, has been recognised by many awards.

His role as a conservationist, who could protect the cranes from over-enthusiastic birdwatchers, was crucial. “I was very lucky to be involved because they chose this place... it was a fluke they came somewhere where their arrival would be kept quiet. I was terrified that the news would get out too soon.”

One of his proudest memoirs of the crane experiment was a pencil and ink sketch made by Sir Peter Scott of the “grey birds” on April 27, 1985 after his visit to the estate.

In 2005, the government’s wildlife champion, Natural England, presented Mr Buxton with a Green Oscar for caring for and protecting Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Mr Buxton, who was a deputy lieutenant of Norfolk, was made an MBE for services to conservation in 2007.

A natural countryman, he enjoyed shooting – with a gun or a camera – and fishing.

Stalking in Scotland was another love and he guided about 150 people to shoot their first stag.

He is survived by Bridget, and four children, Janey, Clare, Robin and Caroline, and 10 granddaughters and a grandson.

Michael Pollitt

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