Woodwalton Fen 1935Woodwalton Fen 1935

In May 1912, a month after the Titanic sank, 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 they considered ‘worthy of preservation’, but it was not until the 1940s that nature conservation made it onto the statute with the National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act in 1949.

Meanwhile local conservation organisations, the forerunners to Wildlife Trusts, were beginning to spring up. The first was Norfolk in 1926, followed by Yorkshire in 1946 and Lincolnshire in 1948. The 1950s saw more and more groups beginning 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.

It is a fascinating story – the local Trusts teaming up with Rothschild’s vision of an organisation to save places for wildlife. We will be marking the year in lots of exciting ways including publishing a book on our history - Wildlife in Trust: A hundred years of nature conservation by Tim Sands; producing a documentary film on our history and launching a series of public events around the themes of Our Wildlife & Our History.



A Brief History of The Wildlife Trusts


The Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR) is established by the banker and expert naturalist, Charles Rothschild (right) at a meeting in London on 16 May. 

Rothschild's vision was to identify and protect the best places for wildlife – a radical idea at a time when conservation work in the UK was largely concerned with protecting species from persecution or over-collecting. With Rothschild's help the Society begins to acquire areas of land - 'nature reserves' - where wildlife could be protected.  

The Society's offices are in the Natural History Museum in London.


The SPNR compiles a list of 284 sites they consider ‘worthy of preservation’ across England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and sets about trying to save what it can.


The SPNR acquires its first nature reserve – Woodwalton Fen in Cambridgeshire, gifted to them by Charles Rothschild.


The Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust is formed and acquires Cley Marshes as its first reserve.


Herbert Smith, a gemologist at the Natural History Museum, takes over as the General Secretary of the Society.


The Government begin to think about post-war construction and the SPNR chair and finance a hugely influential Conference on Nature Preservation in Post-War Reconstruction – which ultimately influenced the process of setting up statutory nature reserves.


The Government's Nature Reserves Investigation Committee is formed. This is the vehicle through which the SPNR can begin to see Rothschild's original vision realised, as potential nature reserves across the UK are identified.


Yorkshire Naturalists’ Trust is formed and acquires Askham Bog as its first reserve.


Lincolnshire Naturalists’ Trust is formed, led by  Ted Smith, and acquires Gibraltar Point as its first reserve.


SPNR influence leads to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, which establishes the first National Parks and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).


Ted Smith travels around the country, helping many counties set up their own local conservation organisations.


The SPNR formally takes on a central coordinating role for the local Trusts.


The first national conference is held in Lincolnshire attended by representatives from 15 local Trusts.


The Scottish Wildlife Trusts forms – Trusts now cover all of Great Britain.


The first major Trust visitor centre opens at Woods Mill, Sussex.


The SPNR changes its name to the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservation (SPNC) to reflect its broader role beyond nature reserves.


Wildlife Watch is incorporated into the SPNC. It was initially set up in 1971 by the Advisory Centre of Education (ACE) and promoted by the Sunday Times.


HRH The Prince of Wales becomes patron of the SPNC.


The Ulster Wildlife Trust forms – Trusts now cover the whole of the UK.


The SPNC changes its name to the Royal Society of Nature Conservation (RSNC).


UK-wide magazine, Natural World, is launched.


The British Wildlife Appeal is launched and fronted by President of the RSNC, Sir David Attenborough. The appeal raises £16.1m over five years.


Devon Trust for Nature Conservation appoints the movement’s first full-time Marine Officer.


‘The Wildlife Trusts’ is chosen as the name by which the partnership of local Trusts was to become known. Many of the local Trusts change their name to include ‘Wildlife Trust’ and begin using the badger logo as part of the UK identity.


The Wildlife Trusts launch the Marine Bill campaign and begin landscape-scale habitat restoration.


The Alderney Wildlife Trust becomes the 47th and last Wildlife Trust, following in the footsteps of another island Trust - the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust - which joined the movement a year earlier, forming in 2001.


The RSNC changes its name to the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts (RSWT).


The Wildlife Trusts launch ‘A Living Landscape’ report, showcasing landscape-scale nature conservation schemes across the UK.


After 18 years of campaigning, Devon Wildlife Trust achieves legal protection for the reefs of Lyme Bay.


The Marine & Coastal Access Act is passed.


The Wildlife Trusts influence leads to a White Paper on the Natural Environment.


There are over 800,000 members across The Wildlife Trusts movement.


The centenary year of The Wildlife Trusts.