Sep 142016


Today is the birthday (1909) of Sir Peter Markham Scott CH CBE DSC FRS FZS,  British ornithologist, conservationist, painter, naval officer, and sportsman. Scott was born in London, the only child of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott and sculptor Kathleen Bruce. He was only two years old when his father died. Robert Scott, in a last letter to his wife, advised her to “make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games.” He was named after Sir Clements Markham, mentor of Scott’s polar expeditions, and his godfather was J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan

Scott was educated at Oundle School and Trinity College, Cambridge, initially reading Natural Sciences but graduating in the History of Art in 1931. He displayed a strong interest in painting, became known as a painter of wildlife, particularly birds. His wealthy background allowed him to follow his interests in art, wildlife, and many sports, including wildfowling, sailing and ice skating. He represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland at sailing in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, winning a bronze medal in the O-Jolle dinghy class.


During the Second World War, Scott served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. As a Sub-Lieutenant, during the failed evacuation of the 51st Highland Division he was the British Naval officer sent ashore at Saint-Valery-en-Caux in the early hours of 11 June 1940 to evacuate some of the wounded. Then he served in destroyers in the North Atlantic but later moved to commanding the First (and only) Squadron of Steam Gun Boats against German E-boats in the English Channel. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery.

Scott is credited with designing the Western Approaches ship camouflage scheme, which disguised the look of ship superstructure. In July 1940, he managed to get the destroyer HMS Broke (D83) in which he was serving experimentally camouflaged, differently on the two sides. To starboard, the ship was painted blue-grey all over, but with white in naturally shadowed areas as countershading, following the ideas of Abbott Handerson Thayer from the First World War. To port, the ship was painted in “bright pale colours” to combine some disruption of shape with the ability to fade out during the night, again with shadowed areas painted white. However, he later wrote that compromise was fatal to camouflage, and that invisibility at night (by painting ships in white or other pale colors) had to be the sole objective. By May 1941, all ships in the Western Approaches (the North Atlantic) were ordered to be painted in Scott’s camouflage scheme. The scheme was said to be so effective that several British ships collided with each other. The effectiveness of Scott’s and Thayer’s ideas was demonstrated experimentally by the Leamington Camouflage Centre in 1941. Under a cloudy overcast sky, the tests showed that a white ship could approach six miles (9.6 km) closer than a black-painted ship before being seen. For this work he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire.


He stood as a Conservative candidate unsuccessfully in the 1945 general election in Wembley North. In 1946, he founded the organization with which he was ever afterwards closely associated, the Severn Wildfowl Trust (now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) with its headquarters at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, where he saved the nene or Hawaiian goose, from extinction in the 1950s, through a captive breeding program. In the years that followed, he led ornithological expeditions worldwide, and became a television personality, popularizing the study of wildfowl and wetlands.


I’m not an especially avid fan of Scott. I watched a few of his television shows in the 1960s, but he seemed a bit too aristocratic and distant for my tastes. I was intrigued by the fact that he was Robert Scott’s son, though, and wondered whether that was what led to his fame. I think, in hindsight, that’s a bit harsh. His work on conservation, especially wildfowl and wetlands, is extremely important,  not least because he began it at a time when few were interested. The water meadows in Gloucestershire he preserved are some of the last remaining in Britain. They were once havens for biodiversity throughout the British Isles. By my eye his painting is sentimental and overrated as art. It was good for raising money for, and awareness of, conservation, however. Here’s a gallery:

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I’m awfully tempted to give a recipe for wild duck or goose, but will resist. You have to accept, though, that Scott came to conservation because he had been an avid hunter, not in spite of it. Many conservation efforts in Britain and the U.S. were promoted by hunters precisely because they experienced, first hand, the declining numbers of wildfowl. I’ve been a duck hunter myself, in the brackish sounds of North Carolina (not because I care for the sport, but because I was documenting the culture as an anthropologist). I too witnessed the plunging populations of ducks and geese over the course of the 1970s and ’80s. So, I’ll divert from meat to eggs.

Duck eggs are a rarity in the West, but in Asia they are as easy to find as chicken eggs (as are quail eggs). I probably ate duck eggs more often than chicken eggs in China. Basically you can do with duck eggs whatever you do with chicken eggs – fry, poach, boil, bake, scramble, etc. You can make omelets, soufflés, frittatas, cakes, or whatever you want. They are about the same size as a chicken egg and taste more or less the same – perhaps a bit richer, and the yolks can be more golden. Here’s a gallery to get you started.

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This website is great. There is a heavy emphasis on asparagus and ham as accompaniments. So, for today I’ll go with a poached duck egg with fried ham and asparagus on toast. This can make a good first course. I often poach eggs instead of frying them, and have used them a lot in recipes here in this blog. But a quick scan shows that I have never given a recipe. People don’t poach eggs much these days. I guess they think it is more of a hassle than frying, though I don’t think it is. It just takes a little practice. Here’s a step by step.

Use a deep frying pan. Fill it with water and add a little salt and vinegar. The vinegar assists in keeping the white together as it cooks.


Bring to a slow simmer.


Crack an egg on to a plate or saucer. This step is not absolutely necessary, but I find it aids in getting the egg into the poaching water.


Slide the egg gently into the water.


Push the yolk  and white around a little (gently) whilst it cooks. You want to keep the white tight, and also keep the yolk off the bottom.


Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and serve.


The degree of doneness of the egg is your choice. I prefer the white cooked and the yolk runny. This takes about 3 minutes. If you want a harder yolk cook the egg longer.