Nathaniel Charles Rothschild (1877-1923) was an entomologist, a pioneer of nature conservation in Britain and the inspirational founder and first Chairman of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves – the organisation that went on to become The Wildlife Trusts.
A man before his time, he argued for protecting not only individual species but whole natural habitats, and was convinced that conservation policy had to be based on sound survey and research. He saw Britain as part of the European, and indeed international, conservation scene and recognised the need to attract the support of influential individuals of the time, and to promote his ideas to a wider public.
He published his first scientific paper The Lepidoptera of Harrow while still a schoolboy, and had been round the world twice by the age of 26. He discovered the plague vector flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) in Egypt which he described and named in 1903. He joined the family banking firm of N M Rothschild & Sons in London where he was responsible for the management of the Royal Mint Refinery, a business run by the bank from 1852.
It was in May 1912 that he was finally able to progress his ideas on protecting sites for wildlife. He convened an initial meeting with friends and colleagues that would lead to the formation of Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR) the first national organisation concerned primarily with conserving habitats. His idea was to use the Society to persuade others of the “desirability of preserving in perpetuity sites suitable for nature reserves”. The plan was “to undertake a nationwide survey of such sites with the help of local societies and individuals”. A list of 284 potential UK nature reserves was compiled by 1915 and further sites continued to be submitted after the printed list was produced in 1916.
A man before his time, he argued for protecting not only individual species but whole natural habitats, and was convinced that conservation policy had to be based on sound survey and research.
But his interests, commitments and responsibilities were numerous and diverse. He was Chairman of the Alliance Assurance Company and, after the outbreak of war, took on work for more than one Government Department. He was, for example, a member of the Munitions Board. On the death of his father in the spring of 1915, he assumed duties linked to the administration of the family’s large estate. He was Deputy Lieutenant of the City of London, Justice of the Peace and had been High Sheriff of Northamptonshire. He was also a fellow, or member, of numerous scientific and learned societies. He was President of both the Northamptonshire Natural History Society and Peterborough Natural History Society and, in 1915 and 1916, President of the Entomological Society of London. In his Presidential address to that Society in January 1916, he made a special appeal for the preservation of natural areas as nature reserves and for support for his new Society.
In 1917 he contracted encephalitis associated with the so-called Spanish influenza which swept across Europe towards the end of the war. Sadly he would not live to see his vision of nature conservation fully realised and he died at his home Ashton Wold in Northamptonshire, on 12th October 1923.
In a message conveyed to his wife a few days after his death, the Society’s Honorary Secretary wrote, “I am sure of voicing the feelings of every member (of the Executive) when I express how severe is the loss suffered by the Society in the tragic death of the late Mr Rothschild. It was entirely due to his inspiration and help that the Society came into existence, and he has at all times taken the greatest interest in its activities and given a helping hand whenever required. Although his health during recent years did not allow him to attend meetings, he took pains to keep in close touch with what was happening. We deplore the loss of a generous and real friend”.