The first comprehensive history of The Wildlife Trusts

Written by Tim Sands, Wildlife in Trust charts the changing fortunes of the local nature conservation movement founded to protect UK wildlife. We find out a little more about the man marking a century of action for wildlife...

What sparked your interest in the natural world?

I was lucky enough to grow up in rural Derbyshire.  Mum and Dad moved there from Sheffield when I was four.  We went to the Peak District and so I grew up in a fantastic environment which was so full of wildlife.   

My mum was pretty good at wildflower recognition and she shared it, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time.  As a boy, I remember the banks of cowslips near to home and Nottingham catchfly, a rare species, and globeflower in the dales.  Finding them gave me a fantastic feeling.  The riches we had then! 

It was a naturalist who gave me my start in the natural history field.  David Spalding was my first boss when I worked at the Sheffield City Museum.  He was a very caring and inspirational person.  We did a lot of outreach work for schools and setting up field studies and developing nature trails: all very innovative in Sheffield at that time.  I learnt the importance of reaching out to, and involving, people and I had my first introduction to the Trusts – doing fieldwork on Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s little Agden Bog reserve and briefly as a Board member of the young Derbyshire Wildlife Trust.

Do you have favourite places for nature?

A favourite Wildlife Trust reserve would have to be in Derbyshire where I grew up, Miller’s Dale has fantastic scenery:   it has become a nature reserve since I lived there as a boy.

There are other places – I had lovely holidays in Anglesey - Cemlyn Bay is a great reserve, for example.  As children, my brother and I would go looking for marsh gentians on Anglesey wherever they were growing.  We knew they were there because they were in the Anglesey Flora.

I live near Lincoln and Whisby is our closest reserve.  It is great and we enjoy the nightingales there in the spring.  We go to Woodhall Spa and out to the Lincolnshire coast quite a bit too.

You worked for The Wildlife Trusts for 30 years and in a variety of roles.  What did that entail?

Working in Westminster, primarily on legislation, was my main focus.  Legislation is important as it sets markers and can make significant changes.  Perhaps my most important work came with my involvement, first with the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975, then with the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act and the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act.  I was also involved in the early campaigning for a Marine Bill – now the Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009.  These were very much a team effort, with people from other organisations such as RSPB, Friends of the Earth and WWF-UK. 

What are you most proud of achieving during this time?

I have been able to spot people and bring them into the organisation.  There is plenty of potential out there and I feel that recognising it is what I’m good at.  In the book I describe talking to Stephanie Hilborne, when she was Chief Executive of Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust.  At that time, we needed someone to take on the CEO role of the national body, The Wildlife Trusts, and I could see she had the potential. 

People in Wildlife Trusts work incredibly hard in their local patches, know their area and understand its culture and communities.  This is the nature of The Wildlife Trusts movement, and is its strength.  There’s now a real understanding in the movement of the value of our collective work. 

Over the years, there have been many changing circumstances and different people to work with.  I have had to keep flexible and adapt:  it is this challenge of which I am most proud.

What would be your advice to the next generation of conservationists?

You have to be an optimist to work in this field day-to-day.  It’s a cause as well as a job.  Conservation seems to attract people who are genuinely interested in what they are doing and what they want to achieve.  The way you live, how you live and the environment in which you live are probably most important.  We can give people a sense of what is possible now through our work for A Living Landscape and Living Seas.

My advice for the next generation is to stick at it.  Learn from the examples of the past, have a broad vision, keep focussed on what is important for the future and don’t get bogged down in too much detail.  Don’t be afraid of organisations evolving.  To be a part of the move from the protectionist approach to a restoration approach has been one of the most exciting things I have been involved in.  

Why did you decide to write this book?

Wildlife in Trust sets out a history of the origins and development of The Wildlife Trusts to inspire future generations.  I knew I was in a unique position, having seen the development of the organisation over 45 years.  Many of the people I knew from the early days had died so I also felt an even greater responsibility to get the history down.  I also realised that few in the movement today have had that knowledge of our history.  Just writing the book has sparked an interest in it.

I had discussed my idea with John Sheail, a geographer and historian, who wrote Nature In Trust, a book that chronicled the history of the conservation movement up to the 60s and 70s.  He inspired and encouraged me.  So, when I retired in 2005, I knuckled down to research and write Wildlife in Trust.

I began to unearth some fascinating information.  New personalities came to light and I discovered more about them, which I found very exciting.  I’m continuing to research the artist who created the Society’s first logo, for example.  George Edward Lodge was a famous Edwardian artist who illustrated the 12 volumes of David Bannerman’s The Birds of the British Islands. 

The book is frank in places about some events. But it is also my perspective on the history.  I thought it was important to see how the ups and downs have led us to where we are now, and also to see how we have developed as a movement. 

How did you approach writing it?

Part One follows the chronology of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, now known as The Wildlife Trusts, and the development of individual Wildlife Trusts, including before and during the two World Wars, and the decades after that to the 2000s.  This means that each chapter sits in the context in which we were operating at that time. 

I was also keen for Wildlife Trusts to write their own individual histories to get an amalgam of their thinking.  So Part Two contains a history of each Wildlife Trust.  I expect many people will turn first to the counties or countries where they live and know best.

Part Three is a reference section, so it feels like a handbook.   Overall though, I hope people will understand that my main motivation was to produce a record for people, particularly members and others involved in The Wildlife Trusts, to use. 

What did your research involve?

I would spend the day writing or reading documents.  I also met most of the key players who are still alive, and those who had memories and knowledge of different periods. 

I allowed myself some fun diversions whilst writing the book.  For example, a former colleague, Adrian Skerrett, told me about the voyage by a naturalist from this country to the Seychelles in the early twentieth century when it suddenly clicked that there was a link to my research.  One of the naturalists that Rothschild engaged was, splendidly, called Edmund Gustavus Bloomfield Meade-Waldo, whose family had owned Hever Castle in Sussex.  He went on a round the world expedition with Lord Crawford on his yacht and the journey is captured in Three Voyages of a Naturalist by MJ Nicholl.  The book relates how Nicholl and Meade-Waldo saw a ‘giant sea serpent’ off the coast of Brazil.  When he returned, he gave talks about it.  I’ve no idea what the animal was but it was one of those lovely ‘Loch Ness-type’ stories.  The drawing they did at the time is included in the book.

What was the motivation of Charles Rothschild?

He was a scientist and fascinated by studying wildlife.  Rothschild was an expert on the Order Siphonaptera (fleas) and discovered the plague flea in Egypt.  He described and named it in 1903.  Later, his daughter Miriam took on and completed his work in this field.

He’d been thinking about his idea that places needed to be protected for 12 years before he founded our movement in 1912 and identified areas that needed this protection through his phenomenal survey.  He was driven by the idea this was going to be important.  Rothschild did buy land, owned property and gave it to people.  So there was a clear philanthropic element.

Who were some of the other interesting personalities?

Some of the interesting personalities that emerged had the vision to see beyond their immediate horizon.  It is difficult to see this now because the vision they had is now the norm.  But it’s important to consider the context – social, economic and environment - in which they were working at the time.  In this respect their foresight was amazing!

Herbert Smith, the longest serving Honorary Secretary between 1921 and 1953, was vital during this period.  He was able to devote more of his time to the Society after his retirement from the Natural History Museum in London in 1937, where he was a gemologist.  I describe him as a stage manager:  a ‘do-er’ and ‘fixer’.

Ted Smith was a post-war pioneer of nature conservation.  He helped found Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust in 1948, played an important role in the SPNR’s development and is the Lincolnshire Trust’s President today.  Ted is highly motivated by his vision and understanding of what’s needed at any particular moment in time. 

Ted had seen early on that local nature conservation organisations were going to be important.  At that time there was a lukewarm response from the natural history societies to new bodies.  There was not an understanding, at that point, that more needed to be done if what was being studied was to remain in the future. 

Ted saw the need for a different kind of body: one that could own land.  Also he realised the need to work together to form a collection of organisations and the need for them to have a national voice.

The movement was built up from local people, local communities inspiring work at a local level which recognised the importance of working together and through a national association.  That has been a strength.

How did war affect how people thought about the natural environment?

During the Second World War, the Society had to close the office; the Honorary Secretary had to work from home; everything had to go into storage; they didn’t go to or hold meetings.  In fact, the RSPB offices in Victoria Street in London were bombed one Sunday.  There was a real chance there would be a decline in activity.

But it’s amazing that this was far from the case.  People in Government began looking at how life could be rebuilt after the war was over.  They needed to plan not least to give people hope for the future.  The Society grasped the nettle, it took the opportunity, and set up a conference; set up working groups to give advice and feed information to Government on post-war planning for nature conservation.

The green shoots of our modern Trust movement were already there in that work.  The establishment of local and regional Nature Reserve Investigation Committees in the midst of war - a most difficult period – shows that they were looking to the future.  They had a vision and some hope for something better; for giving people a better quality of life. 

This work fed into the Government’s own Committees and ultimately to the establishment of a new statutory agency – the Nature Conservancy – and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.  Lewis Silkin, the Minister taking this bill through Parliament, said that the Society should take a watchdog role “to keep the new agency, local authorities and Government on their toes, to educate the general public and to champion science in the face of the material side of life”.

What would you like to see the Government take from what has happened in the past?

I would like for the environment and wildlife generally to be recognised as being as important as or equivalent to education, as I say in the postscript in the book.

In the 19th century, society didn’t accept education as being an essential part of everyday life.  Children were being sent up chimneys and the last thing people wanted was for their child not to be earning money.  Education didn’t and doesn’t bring immediate benefits or return.  But a more educated, more articulate individual can contribute more as they begin to develop. The benefits can be reaped in the longer term.  

It’s the same with the environment.  You don’t immediately see an answer and its one of the problems within a five year Government cycle.  Sometimes the things you do don’t bring immediate or obvious benefits. 

It is a longer-term cycle and what we do now and the way in which we restore what we’ve got to restore for the natural environment; we will reap benefits later on.