A little over a year ago I began writing several chapters of what became Wild and Wonderful Norfolk,
published by NWT in partnership with Archant. The most time-consuming of these chapters covered the 90-year history of Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Its preparation meant hours in the archive, poring over the hand-written minutes of council meetings long ago. It meant turning the delicate, decades-worn pages of every Annual Report since 1926, searching for facts, for anecdotes, for personalities.
One unexpected result of so much time spent in the archive is that a few tweed-clad, whiskered men in fading photographs, with metal binoculars around their necks or shotguns slung under their arms have, as silly as it sounds, become guides and friends. Often I reflect on what they would think of today’s Norfolk Wildlife Trust and all that it has achieved since they conceived and created it.
The first among these men, of course, was Dr Sydney Long. His is the soft-spoken voice which underlies everything Norfolk Wildlife Trust (founded as Norfolk Naturalists Trust) has done in the past 90 years. The son of a Wells doctor and himself a physician at the Norfolk and Norwich and Jenny Lind Hospitals, it was he who galvanised a group of his friends to purchase Cley Marshes when it was sold on 6 March 1926. He it was too who proposed the formation of Norfolk Naturalists Trust to own and protect Cley Marshes and who, as Honorary Secretary, guided NNT through the first twelve years of its existence until his death on 15 January 1939.
The NWT archive reveals little of the personality of this remarkable man and there are very few photographs of him. However, when in 1976 NNT turned 50, Eric Fowler, a well-known columnist for the Eastern Daily Press, wrote an account of Sydney Long in the celebratory publication ‘Nature in Norfolk, a Heritage in Trust’ (published by Jarrold). It includes many charming and enlightening details.
‘He had little use for indoor recreations. From his house in a tall Georgian terrace in Surrey Street […] Sydney Long scoured Norfolk at all seasons in an open car and became one of our best field ornithologists.’ It is clear from Fowler’s account that Sydney Long had a strong sense of his forebears in Norfolk natural history: ‘Indeed, he once said his visits to the heronry at Reedham were in the nature of pilgrimages, because old Sir Thomas [Browne, 17th century naturalist and author] had watched herons there nearly 300 years before him.’
‘In appearance,’ Fowler continues, ‘Sydney Long was tall and spare, with a fair, drooping moustache — rather like a gentle Viking. He was reserved in speech and manner, yet had a capacity to make friends in all walks of life. The Trust, indeed, owed as much to his friendships as to his administrative ability. He also seemed to have a natural affinity with the wild creatures he loved to observe. He took it as a personal compliment when the terns, ‘dive-bombing’ other visitors who came too close to their nests on Scolt Head, until they drove the intruders away, contented themselves with a few thumps on his old felt hat.’
Amiable and gentle as he was, this was a man of rare vision. In the Eastern Daily Press on 15 November 1926, reporting the formation of Norfolk Naturalists Trust, Sydney Long wrote, ‘When one considers the changes in the face of the county that are being made or are being contemplated by Forestry Commissioners, Drainage Boards, speculative builders and the like, one is anxious to preserve for future generations areas of marsh, heath, woods and undrained fenland (of which there still remain a few acres in the county) with their natural wealth of flora and fauna.’ At the time few were concerned by the rate at which the UK’s wildlife was vanishing. The formation of NNT was a bold, far-sighted move. Sydney Long notes in the same article that no other county yet had a similar trust. Today there are 47 Wildlife Trusts across the UK and the philosophy expounded by this Norwich doctor in 1926 still applies to all that they do countrywide.
Cley Marshes had been purchased by Sydney Long and friends in March, with the stated intention of donating it to a trust dedicated to the preservation of wildlife. In the same extract from the Eastern Daily Press in November 1926 he writes, ‘Such a company, known as “The Norfolk Naturalists Trust,” has recently been formed, primarily with the object of taking over these Cley Marshes. The objects for which the Trust is established are purposely made very wide and comprehensive and are enumerated in the Memorandum of Association under twenty-four headings. To quote but one or two:— “To protect places and objects of natural beauty or of ornithological, botanical, geological or scientific interest from injury, ill-treatment or destruction.” “To establish, form, own and maintain, sanctuaries or reserves for the preservation of birds or other animals, or for plants.” “To accept subscriptions and donations and apply the same either generally for the purpose of the Trust or for any specific purpose connected with its objects.” Its membership shall not exceed 100, the life membership subscription being £10.’
Sydney Long and his partners consciously made the aims of their trust ‘very wide and comprehensive’, understanding that the face of Norfolk and the threats to its wildlife would change with time. Hence NNT’s aims as stated in 1926 still closely underly the work of Norfolk Wildlife Trust across county today. Since its earliest days NWT has established and maintained nature reserves, just as its founders expected, and today it manages more than fifty beautiful sites for wildlife, and for people to explore in search of wildlife. Likewise, through the work of the People and Wildlife team and Norfolk Wildlife Services it helps many other landowners to protect wildlife and natural beauty on their own property, in the way which the founders foresaw. Furthermore, for 90 years it has gratefully accepted subscriptions and donations from the generous people of Norfolk and further afield, and has carefully marshalled them towards its aims.
One thing which has changed radically is NWT’s membership. Sydney Long and his colleagues agreed that membership would not exceed 100. Today, having grown so much in scope, and with so much to offer people 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 all will agree that NWT offers superb value to its members and has stayed true to the aims of its twelve founders in 1926.
But what would these men, some of them peering at me from sepia photographs in the archive, make of the organisation which has grown from the one they constituted in November 1926? First they would no doubt be struck by the social and environmental context in which NWT now works. Since their day chemical fertilisers and pesticides and industrial machinery have radically changed the farms which make up most of the Norfolk landscape. They might be still more shocked by the changes which have taken place in our 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 we have entire generations of young people to whom nature seems to mean nothing, who have wholly lost their ecological literacy.
These things, and many more, would trouble Sydney Long and the co-founders of NNT. But I believe that they would also be heartened, greatly proud, to see that these are the very things which their Norfolk Wildlife Trust, and Wildlife Trusts which have followed all across the UK, fight, day in, day out, to reverse. ‘A Living Landscape’ is the direction in which the Wildlife Trusts are working today. It is a vision for a vibrant UK countryside, in which farms, gardens, parks and school grounds are all once more healthy habitat for both people and wildlife. In ‘A Living Landscape’ nature reserves are connected by corridors of habitat through which wild species and their genes may freely flow. Crucially people are also connected to wildlife and wild landscape, for their own wellbeing and for the benefit of nature.
And the germ of ‘A Living Landscape’ would be instantly recognisable to Sydney Long and his colleagues; for it is found in the very aims they themselves drew up for NNT when long ago in 1926 they bought Cley Marshes.
J. W. Castle, A. H. Macpherson, H. R. S. Birkin, O. Birkbeck, G. R. R. Colman, C. McLean, D. Gunn, G. H. Gurney, S. H. Long, T. G. Longstaffe, R. W. E. Allars and E. F. Norton: on the 90th anniversary of the foundation of your trust, Norfolk thanks you for all that it has achieved and for all that it is yet to achieve.