On 6 March 2021, Norfolk Wildlife Trust reached another milestone: 95 years of care for Cley Marshes. It was on this day in 1926 that 12 men, led by Dr Sydney Long, purchased the marsh, to be preserved ‘as a bird-breeding sanctuary for all time’. Later in the year the same men created what was then known as Norfolk Naturalists Trust; initially to manage Cley Marshes, but with ambitious plans for the future.
Sydney Long and his friends deliberately kept the aims of their trust ‘very wide and comprehensive’, understanding that the face of Norfolk and the threats to its wildlife would change enormously with time. Thus the aims established for NNT in 1926 still underpin the work of Norfolk Wildlife Trust today. Since our earliest years we have purchased and maintained nature reserves, as our founders directed. We now manage sixty important sites for wildlife, and for people to explore and enjoy. Likewise, NWT helps hundreds of other landowners to protect wildlife and natural beauty on their own Norfolk properties, in a way our founders would emphatically support.
But what would these bewhiskered men — peering at me from sepia photographs in the NWT archive — make of the modern organisation which has grown from the one they constituted in 1926? Above all they would be struck by the social and environmental context in which NWT now operates. Many farms which make up most of the Norfolk landscape, and which neighbour almost all of our reserves, have changed beyond recognition since NWT was founded. Species which the founders would have considered common, have drastically declined in the county or altogether disappeared. Visiting today’s Norfolk, Sydney Long would lament the extinction of the red-backed shrike: a once-common bird which preyed on the abundance of large insects found prior to the introduction of chemical pesticides and the relentless tidying-up of our landscape. He would be astounded by the decline in birds associated with old meadows, farm ponds, thick hedges, village commons and winter stubbles, including swallows, house martins, turtle doves, nightingales, yellowhammers, corn buntings, grey partridges and tree sparrows.
I believe our founders would be still more shocked by the changes which have taken place in our societal relationship with nature. In 1926 there was not a child in Norfolk, even in the very centre of Norwich, who did not play in the outdoors, who did not know the oak from the elm, the red admiral from the small tortoiseshell, and the swallow from the swift. Today entire generations of people have grown up with no personal relationship — of exploration and imagination — with nature; generations who, to their own detriment, have lost all ecological literacy.
These things, and many others, would trouble Sydney Long. But I believe that he would also be heartened — filled with pride — that these are the very trends which Norfolk Wildlife Trust, and Wildlife Trusts founded subsequently all across the UK, fight every day to reverse. The founders would enthusiastically embrace our campaign — alongside many partners — for a
Nature Recovery Network. This is a vision for a vibrant UK countryside, in which farms, gardens, parks and school grounds are all once again healthy habitat for both people and wildlife; in which nature reserves are connected by corridors of habitat, through which wild species and their genes flow freely. Crucially, in our Nature Recovery Network people are also personally connected to wildlife and wild landscape, for their own wellbeing and for the benefit of nature.
The need for a personal relationship with nature has never been clearer than over the past year. It is now twelve months since the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded in the UK, since which time our lives — our families, our work, our education and our pastimes — have been turned entirely on their heads. As has been widely reported, millions of us, everywhere, have taken refuge during this gruelling time in nature. The internet has lit up with creative responses to the natural world — photographs, drawings, poetry and podcasts — and our slowed-down, locally-limited lives have led to countless among us noticing nature’s species and cycles more keenly than ever before.
One other thing which has changed dramatically over the past 95 years is NWT’s membership. In 1926 Sydney Long and his colleagues agreed that the trust’s membership would not exceed 100. Today, having grown so much in scope, and with so much more to offer across the county, NWT is happy to count on the support and interest of more than 35,000 members. Some may rue the fact that life membership subscription has risen a touch from its original £10 but hopefully all will agree that NWT offers superb value to its members, and that it has stayed true to the aims of its twelve founders in 1926.
Understandably, membership declined in 2020, as we felt the pandemic’s economic strains. Our work at NWT has continued all the same. Where lockdown restrictions have allowed, we have continued to manage our nature reserves for the rare species which inhabit them. Where possible, we have offered advice to other landowners, helping them provide high-quality habitat for nature. We have continued — to purchase new land, and to restore it as habitat for wild species (and wild people), and to fundraise to allow such work to proceed. We have communicated with our members, and with the public in Norfolk, about nature and its conservation, and its meaning in all our lives.
We are happy and proud to do all this. Happy to inherit the legacy of Sydney Long and his visionary friends. Happy to hand this legacy on to generations still to come. Committed to devote our income and energy to the exquisite diversity of landscape and species found in our county. Because for 95 years, following the impetus of our founders, this is what we have done; and what we promise always to do.