Sheffield society’s all-round man of nature will live on in wildlife textbooks

Austin Brackenbury at Potteric Carr in 1994
Austin Brackenbury at Potteric Carr in 1994
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An amateur scientist who dedicated much of his life to studying nature and the environment around Sheffield has died aged 90.

Austin Brackenbury, from Norton Lees, was a stalwart member of the Sorby Natural History Society, serving as the group’s president, acting as membership services officer for over 30 years, and accepting the title of honorary life member.

Known to many as the ‘friendly face’ of the society, he travelled the country on lecture tours, telling tales of his time studying wildlife while manning Oughtibridge signal box.

Austin was a talented portrait photographer and also made national contributions to the nature textbooks.

He will be remembered for the invention of the ‘Brackenbury Lure’, a method of using wild flowers as a portable insect lure, and for coining the name ‘Marmalade Hoverfly’ for a common variety of the creature.

Austin was born in 1925 on Dovercourt Road, off City Road, where his parents kept a shop. However, after being orphaned aged 10 following the death of his mother and father, he went to live with family in a farming community in rural Lincolnshire.

Aged 15 Austin started work in the canteen, NAAFI and bakery at RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire. Two years later he volunteered for the infantry, and landed on the Normandy beaches during D-Day in 1944.

He came back to England after World War Two, and joined British Railways as a signalman in 1947. Austin worked at various signal boxes across Sheffield, finally arriving at Oughtibridge in 1972.

It was while working alone as a signalman, close to woodland, that his interest in natural history was kindled.

He joined Sorby in 1969, gaining a reputation as an all-round naturalist and photographer. Austin collected flies for what is now Weston Park Museum - starting with hoverflies and moving on to other insects.

By 1983, when his Oughtibridge box closed and he was made redundant, he had recorded over 100 species of hoverflies at the one location. Thousands of further specimens are still being identified to this day.

Austin went semi-professional for several years, carrying out insect surveys and collecting 20,000 records.

In 1995 he was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Entomological Society - an honour he was particularly proud of.

Sorby member Derek Whiteley said: “As tributes pour in since he passed away, the one word that stands out is ‘inspiration’.

“He inspired us with his careful studies, he taught us to pay attention to detail, his lectures and photographs and workshops inspired us, but most of all he was just really good company out on field trips - a goldmine of knowledge, an array of different insect nets and collecting paraphernalia, his perennial berets - different colours for different seasons - and his sumptuous packed lunches in the field.”

Austin had been unwell for some time, and died at Scarsdale Grange Care Home, Norton Lees.

He leaves a son, Robin, and two grandchildren. His wife, Hazel, died eight years ago. The couple met during a photographic night class at Woodseats Junior School in 1953.

Robin said: “He was very gentle, kind and humorous - that sums him up best.”