The Wildlife Trusts celebrate 100 years of nature conservation


Tuesday 15 May, 2012




On 16 May 1912 a banker, landowner, naturalist and scientist named Charles Rothschild got together with like-minded enthusiasts to whip-up support for a radical idea: to identify and protect the very best of the UK’s wild places. Thus began the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves which would later become The Wildlife Trusts movement – the first time that anyone had come up with a vision for nature conservation.Before 1912, the emphasis was on trying to protect individual species. Rothschild’s plan was different: to safeguard the places where wildlife lived – the moors, meadows, woods and fens under attack from rapid modernisation.  An expert entomologist, Rothschild succeeded in enlisting the support of 50 Fellows of the Royal Society, the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, while the Speaker of the House of Commons, James Lowther MP, became the first president.

From that spark of an idea – and the 339 acres of wild fenland that Rothschild first bought to save for nature – grew a movement across the UK that would see a network of Trusts acquiring new reserves. 

Norfolk Wildlife Trust was the very Trust to be established. The purchase by Dr Sydney Long of 400 acres of marsh at Cley on the north Norfolk coast in 1926 to be held ‘in perpetuity as a bird breeding sanctuary’ provided a blueprint for nature conservation which has now been replicated across the UK. Cley Marshes is still one of the flagship reserves in Britain.

Chief Executive of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Brendan Joyce said:
“We are very proud to be the first Wildlife Trust in Britain and to carry on the work of visionaries such as Charles Rothschild and Dr Sydney Long.”

Later in the 1940s and 50s, the Society took the Government by the hand and led it toward legislating for nature for the first time, establishing National Parks, National Nature Reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest – many of these wildlife-rich jewels are still cared for by The Wildlife Trusts today.

The 1960s saw these reserves cease to be academic field laboratories and become treasured refuges for people to enjoy, learn about nature and get involved.  In the 1970s, Trusts proposed the first marine reserves – the start of vital work that continues today to secure protection at sea for the rarely-seen treasures – among the most productive on Earth – around our shores.  Urban nature conservation flourished in the 1980s.  People realised that living in a city is no bar to enjoying nature and Trusts set about transforming derelict inner-city sites into oases for wildlife.

Hickling Broad, courtesy Richard OsbourneToday there are 47 Wildlife Trusts promoting a far-reaching vision for nature known as A Living Landscape and Living Seas.  As well as protecting what already exists in reserves and other special places, Wildlife Trusts are working with landowners, local communities and partners to aid nature’s recovery on a wider scale.

NWT Hickling Broad shown left, was one of the original 284 Rothschild reserves. It perfectly illustrates the more recent move toward wider landscape recovery known as Living Landscapes and is the focus of much habitat management work at the moment: 5,000 hectares of wetland habitat is being restored in the Upper Thurne broads, including creating extensive new wetland areas, enhancing arable farmland for wildlife and providing new opportunities to enjoy, understand and value the natural environment.

Talking about her father Charles on Desert Island Discs in 1989, Miriam Rothschild said:
“Before his time people thought you had to conserve rare species and he realised that it was the habitat you had to conserve not the species.  You had to preserve the wood in which the animals lived or the meadows in which they lived.”

Simon King, The Wildlife Trusts’ President writes:
“Over the past 100 years, we have seen phenomenal changes take place in the UK – and we of course have been the architects of most of them.  In recent decades many of these changes have been for the better, with trends of extinction reversed, habitats protected or restored and the natural world finding a place in our constitution more often than ever before.  But there is still work to do.  The spark of Rothschild’s idea – to procure land with a view to ensuring our wild neighbours have safe haven – took a while to kindle.  But the spark was sufficient to burn brightly in the hearts and minds of a few, who became a few more, which developed a community that, 100 years on, has blossomed into one of the most significant conservation movements in the world.”

In May 1912 Charles Rothschild held a meeting to discuss his radical idea about saving places for nature. This meeting led to the formation of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, which would become the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, and signalled the beginning of UK nature conservation as we know it.  The Society worked hard to secure Government protection for sites across the UK that they considered ‘worthy of preservation’, but it was not until the 1940s that nature conservation made it onto the statute books with the National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act in 1949 which established the first National Parks and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. These key designations enabled the realisation of Rothschild’s vision.

Cley Marshes, courtesy Richard Osbourne

Meanwhile local conservation organisations, the forerunners to Wildlife Trusts, were beginning to spring up in response to the widespread devastation of our natural habitats.  The first was Norfolk in 1926 (Cley Marshes pictured above was its first reserve), followed by Yorkshire in 1946 (acquiring Askham Bog as its first reserve) and Lincolnshire in 1948 (acquiring Gibraltar Point).  The 1950s saw more and more groups beginning to form largely thanks to the efforts of Ted Smith.  The son of a Lincolnshire plumber, Smith (who is now in his nineties) was instrumental in helping Trusts establish in other counties.  Rothschild’s SPNR became a co-ordinator, helping young Trusts get going and encouraging others to form and by the end of the decade the Society took on the role of a national association to represent them.  The Scottish Wildlife Trust was formed in 1964 and Trusts now covered the whole of Britain.  The movement expanded further in 1978 with the formation of the Ulster Wildlife Trust.  There are now 47 Wildlife Trusts covering the whole of the UK, the Isle of Man and Alderney.

Sir David Attenborough, Vice-President of The Wildlife Trusts, writes:
“The Wildlife Trusts are in good heart. They have huge numbers of supporters and volunteers, they are well organised, effective, and have a loud voice in parliament - which is just as well - because the dangers are greater than ever. I can only urge them onwards and say that generations to come are going to be more grateful than they will know. This countryside of Britain is much better for the work of The Wildlife Trusts - and I believe that work will continue and become increasingly important.”

Aubrey Manning, OBE, former President of The Wildlife Trusts, writes:
“I am hopeful that we are beginning to recognise our dependence on the earth and that we are part of it. The Wildlife Trusts have always done this and have done so much to bring people closer to nature. When you take people out into the field and say “I think there’s something you’ll like round the corner here, and suddenly you’ll see a flower-rich meadow in front of you – it’s just marvellous!”

Chairman of Norfolk Wildlife Trust Martin Shaw said:
“Our predecessors (and the Rothschilds in particular) are to be congratulated for their foresight in establishing  the concept of nature reserves. Without their vision and that of the founders of NWT, Norfolk would be much the poorer.”

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