Naturalist and film-maker known for Tarka the Otter
Born: May 11, 1930;
Died: March 25, 2018
DAVID Cobham, who has died aged 87, was a conservationist, writer and pioneer of nature film-making. In the 1970s he was one of the first to challenge the destruction of the countryside with his film Vanishing Hedgerows, the first environmental film broadcast by the BBC; he also made the beloved 1979 film Tarka the Otter.
Cobham had discovered his interest in the natural world as a child growing up in Yorkshire and was particularly interested in owls and hawks; later, as a film-maker he was the first to film an owl hunting at night. While at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, he ran the school’s natural history society.
He went on to study natural sciences at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, although his first break in film-making was making cinema adverts for Pearl and Dean; he then started making short documentaries and public information films.
His first film for the BBC was The Goshawk in 1968, which was one of the first wildlife films made in colour, followed by The Vanishing Hedgerows four years later. The film warned of the dangers of farmers pulling up some of the British hedgerows that wildlife relied on for food and habitat and featured shocking scenes showing the effects of pesticides on birds.
Cobham went on to make many other films about the natural world including The Private Life of the Barn Owl in 1977, which featured the pioneering night filming. Chris Packham, now a naturalist and presenter of Springwatch, saw the film and was inspired to get in touch with Cobham. The young Packham later helped to care for some of the owls in the film before releasing them back into the wild.
Cobham then made the film version of Tarka the Otter, the popular book by Henry Williamson which follows the life and travails of a wild otter. Cobham used a trained otter to recreate the story and the film, narrated by Peter Ustinov, became a popular family classic.
For the remainder of his career, Cobham directed children’s television, notably the popular ITV series Woof!, the adventures of a boy who can turn into a dog based on the book by Allan Ahlberg.
The series won Cobham an Emmy and a British comedy award. He also won a Bafta award in 1976 for a film about the polar explorer Roald Amundsen for the BBC series The Explorers.
In recent years, Cobham had mainly dedicated his time to campaigning for the preservation of birds of prey and was co-founder of the Hawk and Owl Trust. He also helped establish the nature reserve at Sculthorpe Moor near his home in Norfolk.
Chris Packham described Cobham as a personal hero and a great enthusiast with an insatiable passion for birds of prey. “David leaves a legacy of great books and films and inspiration,” said Packham. “He was a fabulous mentor and conservationist.”
Cobham was married twice, firstly to Janet Wallace; they divorced in 1994. He later married the actress Liza Goddard, who survives him.