In 1912 Charles Rothschild founded the ‘Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves’ (SPNR). Its initial aim was to create a list of Britain's finest wildlife sites for potential purchase as nature reserves. Three years of information gathering followed - the first ever national survey of wildlife sites - in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Rothschild and his colleagues were looking for the 'breeding-places of scarce creatures', the 'localities of scarce plants' and areas of 'geological interest'. By 1915 they had compiled a list of 284 sites 'worthy of preservation' - the Rothschild Reserves.
More on the Rothschild Reserves
What was new about this approach to preserving ‘wild life’ was that it focussed on the habitat rather than just the individual species within it. It highlighted a growing belief that places needed protection from development and other damage. It showed a desire for an ordered and reasoned approach to acquiring nature reserves, in the face of increasign pressure on the natural world and culminated in a ‘shopping list’ of ideal sites - the Rothschild Reserves.
The method of data collection was by questionnaire, which were sent to members and to local natural history groups. The wider public, who read about the Society in the newspapers, also wrote in. As well as information about the habitat and species found on each proposed site, the SPNR always established who the landowner was. The intention at this time was to purchase the land, turn it into a nature reserve and then hand it over to the National Trust to manage under special conditions.
It was believed that it was better to fence off nature and leave it to its own devices, rather than practically manage it - a view that has now changed. The elite conservation crusaders could be seen to have inhabited a moral high ground where, from a lofty height, they shook their fists at progress in their quest for ‘primeval country’ and their desire to shut it off. The subjective list certainly betrays personal preferences, personal geography and personal eccentricities.
Problems began to arise. The outbreak of war meant priorities lay firmly elsewhere. Enquiring minds, hungry for information about the British landscape, were not so welcome in an age of foreign spies. Ownership was often complicated and belonged to more than one person; the National Trust became increasingly cooler to the idea; and the Government's Board of Agriculture, while sympathetic, refused to become actively involved.
But Charles Rothschild’s first list was, and still is, of immense interest and importance. It was the first survey of its kind and fed into future studies. While many of the sites on the original list have been partially or completely lost, those that survive are now all SSSIs and/or designated nature reserves. The list provides a unique portrait of the natural landscape almost a century ago, and provides a fascinating, and in some cases worrying, point of comparison for today.
Time and Fragile Nature - Miriam Rothschild and Peter Marren
For those wanting to find out more about the Rothschild Reserves the book Time and Fragile Nature by Miriam Rothschild and Peter Marren is highly recommended. This looks at the fortunes of each of the English sites selected by Rothschild. The book is out of print but copies can sometimes be bought via Amazon.
Rothschild Reserves in Ireland: 1914-2014
The Rothschild Reserves in Ireland 1914-2014, published in January 2014, was compiled by researchers from University College Cork’s Centre for Planning Education and Research with the help of a reference group including An Taisce, the Irish Wildlife Trust, the Carnegie UK Trust and The Wildlife Trusts.
Field visits to 17 sites identified throughout Ireland by Charles Rothchild and the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR) in 1914 were combined with analysis of archive documents to assess the changes to the sites over the past century.
The main report and an executive summary are available to read and download here.
The Rothschild List: 1915-2015
In order to assess what has happened to the places on Rothschild’s List over the past century The Wildlife Trusts set out to collect as much information as we could using desktop research to measure the current state of the 284 Rothschild Reserves. Read our conclusions in the review here.