Celebrating 100 years of nature conservation

Saturday 12th 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 in Cambridgeshire that Rothschild bought himself to save for nature – grew a movement across the UK that would see a network of Wildlife Trusts acquiring and managing land.  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.

...the first time anyone had come up with a vision for nature conservation...

Today 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. Rothschild’s Woodwalton Fen, for example, is now part of an inspirational project to create a huge 3,700 hectare wetland.

Simon King OBE, 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 slowed, 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.”


Tagged with: Centenary & anniversaries