Prophet and Loss: Time and the Rothschild List

In 2015 The Wildlife Trusts wanted to mark the centenary of the Rothschild List and to honour this crowning achievement of our founder.  We enlisted Simon Barnes to visit a selection of the places Charles Rothschild and his colleagues were so keen on protecting a century ago – some places that have been saved and others that have been all but lost.  The ebook Prophet and Loss is the result of that venture and it also contains some beautiful paintings by Nik Pollard who also visited these special wild places – the ‘Rothschild Reserves’.

You can download Prophet and Loss here from Amazon for e-readers and as a pdf here for a small £1 donation. 



The egret and the atom bomb

A chapter from Prophet and Loss by Simon Barnes


Perhaps the world is divided into two sorts of people: those who look at Orford Ness and see a site worthy of preservation and those who look at Orford Ness and see a great place for bombs.  Certainly these two unlikely threads were woven together here throughout the 20th century: and as a result this is one of the strangest places in the country.  The first time I went there I saw a purple sandpiper and an atom bomb.

Not a shred of exaggeration.  This rather natty and mildly unusual bird was there plain as the robin in your back -garden, and there was the atom -bomb, as a matter-of-fact as a teapot.  It was about the same size as the one the Americans dropped on Hiroshima, I was told: that is to say about eight feet long.  You could easily get your arms around it.  The smallness of the thing made it particularly sinister; I’ve been to Hiroshima and I’ve seen what these things are supposed to do.

It all makes for a rum old start to a day of wildlifing.

Aldeburgh makes it to the Rothschild List twice over, once as Aldeburgh and once as Orford Beach, though it does so with the same reserve number.  The questionnaire was returned in 1913 by David Bannerman, who was an ornithologist at the British Museum.  He took a broadbrush approach, stating that a large area to the south of the town was worthy of preservation, and he also went into detail and recommended a much smaller area within it.

Orford Ness has always been a rum old place. It is essentially a bank of shingle that has miraculously sprung up by the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh.  The River Alde makes a determined attempt to join the sea here, but then, inexplicably to a layman, it takes a sharp right and parallels the coast for a good ten miles. That narrow ten-mile stretch of land that keeps river from sea is Orford Ness: a shingle bank stuck on the edge of England as a kind of geological afterthought. The process is called longshore drift and the resulting bank is both remote and accessible at the same time.  It’s cut off, and there’s nothing to bring in a casual visitor.  It’s empty of people, but you can reach it within a few minutes by boat.  It’s easy to guard.  It’s connected to the land at Slaughden by a strip of land just 100 yards wide.  It’s as if it were purposely designed for wildlife; it’s as if it were purposely designed for war and for secrets.

By the time the Rothschild List was complete, Orford Ness was an airfield and Britain was at war.  Aeroplanes had only been around for a decade and the idea of using them for warfare was revolutionary, so they investigated the possibilities right here.  Orford Ness became a place for crazy boffins and daring young men.  The Royal Flying Corps sent their Armament and Experimental Wing here, and they worked with guns and bombs and parachutes.  They even experimented with the manufacture of artificial clouds. At one stage during the war they managed to bring down a Zeppelin with a biplane: quite some achievement, since the Zeppelins could operate at 20,000 feet and with the best will in the world the old planes couldn’t get above 14,000 feet.















So Bannerman’s fears for the future of the little tern colony on Orford Beach were not all that high up the national agenda in 1916.  It was hard – it still is hard – to get people to take wildlife conservation seriously.  In times of national emergency, such things are apt to seem trivial.  The fact that wildlife conservation is ultimately about the future health of the planet really should concentrate hearts and minds at the very highest level, but as Rothschild knew, wildlife conservation has always struggled for attention.  As Gerald Durrell once said: ‘People think that I’m just trying to look after nice fluffy animals. What I’m really trying to do is to stop the human race from committing suicide.’  So, in his own measured and methodical way, always seeking to go through the proper channels, was Rothschild.  So were all the people who helped to compile the great List for the SPNR.I was on Orford Quay trying to find a boat, so I asked a likely- looking lady what to do. ‘I tell you what,’ she said.  ‘I’ll open this blind and then I’ll say “welcome to Orford Ness”.’ Then she opened the blind and welcomed me to Orford Ness. She sold me a ticket for the National Trust boat that makes the five minutes chug across the water. I shared the journey with another lady who explained that her grandfather had been the lone airfield guard during the First World War and that her father had built the pagodas for the atom bombs.

There’s really not much above the ground at Orford Ness: the place seems it be almost entirely sky.  A building of any size is like a mountain and that’s the pagodas for you: three large ungainly buildings that each carries a flat concrete roof on stilts and stretches skywards.  Rum, as I say. These things were built by the Orford Ness Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and they were designed to test atom bombs.  On that previous visit I was escorted inside one. ‘Zo Mr Bond,’ I said. ‘Once again you inzizt on interfering with my planz.’ I expect everybody says that.

A more useful remark was made by the National Trust’s coast and countryside manager, Grant Lahoar. ‘My aim in running this place is to make sure that it is completely safe – without being at all comfortable, either physically or morally.’  He has succeeded triumphantly.

The little terns had departed.  It was that restless time of year, when humans still think it’s summer and birds know that it’s already autumn.  They know it’s time to move, or to change their way of being or both.  Time to stop trying to make more birds; time to concentrate on not dying.  That’s what winter means to most creatures.

Orford Ness was an important place right into the Cold War.  They tried to develop over-the-horizon radar here.  They also tested atom bombs.  They didn’t actually fire off nuclear material here in Suffolk: the job here was to test the safety of the bombs.  They wanted them to blow up at the right time and in the right place, rather than on the aeroplane above a friendly nation.  The pagodas were designed to keep any accidental explosion confined: and as it happened, no explosion took place.

Here’s a Cold War expression for you: crisis relocation.  That means being somewhere else when it happens.  There were plans in place to spirit the national leaders away from the centre of any nuclear attack.  It’s not a new idea: swallows have been doing it across the millennia.  When the crisis of winter hits the north, the swallows go south.  They relocate to Africa, where the air is full of food, insects and other arthropods, at the time when the food supplies in Britain dry up for swallows.  I could see groups of them fizzing about over the Ness together, as if they were discussing the journey, resolving to fly together in a band, and to set off any day now.  You can imagine the conversations between parents and just-fledged young: you’ve flown from the nest all the way to the pagodas and back.  Well done.  Now let’s try and another little flight. Cape Town.

There were redshanks filling the air with their triple-note calls: no stoics, the smallest thing gets a redshank up into the air and calling.  A flight of greylag geese flew over in a tight skein, the traditional goosey formation.  It was that in-between-the-season feeling: a time of transitions.

There are carefully marked paths to follow on the Ness, and everywhere the works of humans and the life of the wild world carry on their discussion.  One side says that life must continue: the other says, you must let us be the judge of that.  I walked past the grimly functional buildings that you associate with the Ministry of Defence and along the cracked concrete roads.  I came to an area of marsh, where a little egret was fishing with an air of leisured certainty.  The land then made a fairly abrupt transition into shingle, and there was a sign that read: ‘Unexploded ordnance. Please keep to the visitor route’.  Or to put that another way, trespassers will be exploded.  A hare lobbed across the shingle, not keeping to the visitor route, but as I watch the black-tipped ears disappear, he seemed to avoid death by explosion.  The raked paths made the visitor route quite clear. I didn’t follow the hare’s example.

I climbed up the lookout and there the sprightly wind turned into something rather more purposeful. I scanned the sea, rather half-heartedly, for porpoises and gannets, but without luck.  Besides, my mind was all on the curious ways of nature and of humanity: the extraordinary process of shingle accretion that has created the Ness, making possible its bizarre history, and the ingenuity of humans who could make something as deadly as an atom bomb.  The Hiroshima bomb killed 146,000.

That figure doesn’t make the notion of wildlife conservation seem trivial.  Nor does it invalidate the idea that the Ness is ‘worthy of preservation’ for its wildlife value alone.  Quite the opposite.  The progressive destruction of our own ecosystem is as great a piece of folly as anything that we humans have ever done, even though the competition is pretty intense.  The love of life is not invalidated by war.  It was then that my mind turned to Sadako Sasaki.  If you have clever and confident hands you can make a crane by origami: it’s said that if you make 1,000 of them a real crane will grant you a wish.

Sadako resolved to fold her own thousand-strong paper flock before she died, knowing that her death was imminent.  She died of leukaemia at the age of 12, as a result of the bomb that fell on Hiroshima.  The folded crane is now a potent part of the meaning of that terrible event, and that meaning is hope.  I went to Hiroshima and I wept.  Everyone who goes there weeps.  And more than anything else, I wept for the hope.  The hope expressed by the folded cranes.

The worst place in the world to be a plant is on a stretch of shingle.  Everything about it is wrong.  There’s no earth.  The pebbles keep shifting. There are no nutrients, or hardly any.  The wind harasses you all the time.  You can’t keep hold of any water: it drains away at express rate through the pebbles.  The air and everything else around you is full of salt.  Just about any normal plant you put there would give up in a matter of hours.

And yet here on Orford Beach there was a ragged and rugged community of plants, impossibly making a living where no life should be: sea kale, sea pea, yellow horned poppy, the last still in flower.  As said before, I’m a birder first, but altogether unexpectedly, I found myself deeply moved by these plants: in the way that life delights in life; in the way that life will find a way in the most unlikely set of circumstances.  In this community of plants I seemed to hold for an instant the meaning of this strange, awful and lovely place.

You’d tell any plant not to bother with shingle.  Ridiculous place to try and live.  Don’t bother.  Have a go elsewhere, like tropical rainforest or your own back garden.  Anywhere but here.  And yet the shingle of Orford Ness is a place of life, not death – hope, not despair – and the yellow flower of a poppy made that uncompromisingly clear.

There were house martins flying over the bridge, another pre-migration flock, birds in the departure lounge.  There was a wheatear visible just beyond, on the shingle among those impossible plants.  Then a birder’s treat: a great white egret flew over, twice the size of the little egret I had seen earlier, languid and elegant.  As a stand-in for a crane it was altogether adequate.

There are random chunks of concrete and metal all about as you walk.  There is an air of decay and of apology.  In terms of warfare, this is yesterday’s place.  It feels almost as if war itself now belonged to the past.  If only that were the case – but it’s just the last century’s way of waging it that we can find here.  War has moved on: the Ness is now free to deal with its natural and its unnatural histories.

This place is managed by the National Trust for wildlife conservation as well as to inform visitors about its uncomfortable past.  There is a nice reedbed. Open areas of grass are grazed by sheep to keep conditions right for ground-nesting birds.  The place remains good for wildlife: Bannerman would still know it and delight in it if we could bring him back here.  The egg-collectors he feared haven’t destroyed the bird populations.  The little terns still nest here. There’s been some damage caused by shingle extraction, but the place remains in good shape.  A flock of 60 lapwings flew overhead: an autumnal gathering.

I had a sudden memory of the scene in Gulliver’s Travels, when Gulliver tells the King of Brobdingnag, the land of the giants, all about the latest developments in human weaponry, and how good we were (even in the eighteenth century) at killing each other.  The king listens, and then finally sums up, in one of the most famous lines in the book: ‘I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.’

I walked back.  At the visitors’ reception there is a blackboard with a list of recent sightings.  I took up the piece of chalk and wrote ‘gw egret’ and left feeling the disbelief of the good volunteers behind my back:, that can’t be right, he’s just seen a little egret and misidentified it, rub it off as soon as he’s gone.  I moved on towards the boat that was to take me back to Orford and a pint at the Jolly Sailor.  As the pleasant little town came into view, it looked for a moment utterly surreal; in the space of a few hours I had grown accustomed to the madness of the Ness. I could hear the persistent calling of a greenshank, a favourite of mine.  And I thought that warfare must really be the world’s ultimate self-indulgence.  No expense has ever been spared when it comes to war.  The conservation of the planet is surely the ultimate essential – and yet it is seen as a luxury.  Time and again it is non-government organisations, fired by the will of its members – by the will of the people, nothing less – that make the best kind of conservation happen.

Nik Pollard artwork

Harlestone Heath



Kynance Cove

Kynance Cove

Woodwalton Fen

Woodwalton Fen