At the end of last month, my ex-father-in-law Norman Moore died. One of the sadness byproducts of getting divorced from his daughter (back in 1995) was that I was cut off from him and his wife, both of whom I loved, although I did see them occasionally and our relationship remained ever warm. Norman was, quite simply, the most remarkable man I have met, loving and kind and of absolute integrity. It’s difficult to write about him, but the following obituary, one of many, gives some idea of why he was, to so many people, so very special:

Norman Moore, who has died aged 92, was a gentle giant in the field of wildlife and conservation policies. He emerged into the public arena during the 1960s as leader of a team that highlighted the devastating effects that organochlorine pesticides were having on British wildlife. The revelation eventually led to a ban on pesticides such as DDT, followed by a slow but dramatic recovery in the populations of many animals at the top of the food chain, in particular birds such as peregrines, eagles, red kites and sparrow-hawks.

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Norman Moore on the coast path of Herm, in the Channel islands, in 1971. He was ‘profoundly disappointed’ in the 1990s when the Nature Conservancy Council was deprived of resources and power

Moore’s team made its findings at the Nature Conservancy’s Monks Wood research laboratory near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, where, from 1960, he was head of the toxic chemicals and wildlife division. The team found that dramatic declines in numbers among birds of prey were primarily a result of egg-shell thinning caused by pesticides, and that species were under threat of extermination because their eggs were structurally too weak to survive in the nest.

Having put forward these findings, Moore naturally believed they would result in swiftly implemented controls on pesticides, but he failed to account for the vested interests of the chemicals industry or the sluggishness of politicians. The Ministry of Agriculture was nervous about his views, and from the outset the government and the chemicals industry leaned heavily on the Nature Conservancy to produce “placatory” findings. To his credit, Moore never succumbed to such pressures, and by continuing to publish immaculate research and disseminate it openly he made sure that various types of organochlorides were phased out over a number of years, leading, in the UK, to an outright ban on DDT in 1984. His arguments with government and industry principally centred on the need, or otherwise, for absolute proof of a link between pesticides and species decline. Moore posited, on the basis of what later became known as the “precautionary principle”, that it was better to proceed on the basis of incomplete information than to carry on at the risk of further damage.

Moore’s work revealed the power the Nature Conservancy had gained from the possession of its own integrated and highly skilled research arm, one that could generate high-quality and well focused in-house material. It was a power that had been fully intended by the conservationist Max Nicholson and others when they set up the Nature Conservancy at the behest of Clement Attlee’s Labour government in 1949. However, after the pesticide issue had clearly demonstrated how much power it had, its strength came under attack from ministers.

In 1973, to the despair of those who understood what was happening, the Nature Conservancy was transformed by Edward Heath’s government into the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) and stripped of its research arm, which became part of the new and quite separate Institute of Terrestrial Ecology. Moore fought bitterly against this politically motivated change. When the battle was lost he worked hard to develop the closest possible ties between the NCC and the research fabric of the new structure. From 1973 onwards, however, conservation research in Britain was weakened. Moore saw the changes as a sad confirmation that, even in the revealing light of pesticide problems, the forces dominant in politics still failed to understand the overriding importance and the long timescale of conservation, and the essential need to rest all policies on sound science-based strategies.

Moore was born in London to Mary (nee Burrows) and Sir Alan Moore, a medical officer of health and a baronet, although Norman chose not to use his father’s title when he succeeded to it in 1959. From an early age he was always happiest in the field as a practising naturalist, and the complexity, elegance and vulnerability of natural systems was the unchanging focus of his life. At prep school in Hampshire his head teacher commented that the young Moore was more often out in the fields studying insects and birds than in his proper place in class. Moore said later that he felt lucky not to have had his innate love of biology marred at school by having to learn the nervous system of a decaying dogfish.

After Eton, Moore took a two-year wartime degree in natural sciences at Cambridge. He joined the army in 1943 and trained as a mountain gunner in the Cairngorms. During fighting in Germany he was wounded and taken prisoner. When the second world war ended, he completed his degree at Cambridge and then became an assistant lecturer at Bristol University, where for his PhD he carried out a detailed ecological study of dragonflies, which were a lifelong focus of fascination and research (he was joint author of the New Naturalist book on dragonflies in 1960).

In 1953 he became the Nature Conservancy’s regional officer for south-west England at Furzebrook research station near Wareham in Dorset, responsible for managing nature reserves. It was there that he studied the enormous damage being suffered by wildlife as a direct result of the reduction and fragmentation of the Dorset heathlands. This led him to follow up on various US studies looking at the possibility that pesticides could be damaging the food chain, and so began his own research in Britain at Monks Wood.

After the creation of the NCC, Moore was its chief advisory officer, publicising the damage being caused to sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), developing the NCC’s strategy on agriculture and conservation, and strongly influencing the shape of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Having been the first British biologist to spend his entire professional career in research, planning and negotiation directly related to practical nature conservation, he retired in 1983 and became chairman of the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, which he had helped to set up 20 years earlier to give environmental advice to farmers. He also continued to chair an International Union for Conservation of Nature specialist group dealing with the identification, ecology and survival of dragonflies.

When in the supposedly green era of the 90s the NCC was further fragmented and deprived of resources and power, Moore was bewildered and profoundly disappointed. “Governments make gestures towards conservation, yet deprive it of resources,” he said. “Instead of commitment there is schizophrenia.”

Moore’s wife, the zoologist Janet Singer, whom he married in 1950, died in 2014. He is survived by their three children, Peter, Caroline and Helena, and by eight grandchildren.

Norman Winfrid Moore, conservationist, born 24 February 1923; died 21 October 2015