Sandwich tern at Blakeney Point, Norfolk - one of 284 special wildlife sites identified by Charles Rothschild and his colleagues
Writer and broadcaster Stephen Moss looks at the lasting contribution of Charles Rothschild and his list of wildlife sites 'worthy of preservation'.
This year, we are commemorating many important anniversaries. 20 years have passed since the Falklands War, 60 years since Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, and a full century since two terrible events: the sinking of the Titanic, and the tragic death of Captain Scott and his men on their return from the South Pole.
A century has also gone by since an even more momentous event for the history of wildlife conservation. For it was in 1912 that a wealthy banker and amateur entomologist, Charles Rothschild, set up the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, now regarded as the launch of the Wildlife Trust movement in Britain.
Rothschild was no mere dilettante, with a passing interest in nature. He was a leading entomologist, specialising in fleas, and in 1899 he had established the UK’s first nature reserve, at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire.
But it was his visionary realisation that 20th century Britain would need permanent havens for wildlife that marks him out as the true father of nature conservation.
The outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, was a huge setback for Rothschild’s embryonic movement. But despite war and illness – he suffered from the debilitating disease encephalitis – he persevered. And in 1915 he produced a list of almost 300 wildlife sites up and down the country, which he felt were ‘worthy of preservation’.
Looking back from an era where we take the existence of nature reserves for granted, it is hard for us to understand just how revolutionary an idea this was. Very few people yet understood that the rapid growth of Britain’s population – which had increased more than fourfold since 1800 – was beginning to have a devastating effect on our landscape and its wildlife.
But Rothschild did. And as a scientist, he also understood the need for hard evidence and practical actions, hence his comprehensive list of 284 key sites to be ‘preserved in perpetuity’, which eventually became known as ‘Rothschild’s Reserves’.
So what has happened to these special places in the intervening century? How many have fallen under the plough or concrete, and how many still exist as nature reserves? Tracing some of the sites on the original list is proving tricky (some have been destroyed completely) but the majority of the sites now enjoy protected status through conservation designations such as Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), National Nature Reserve (NNR) or Special Area of Conservation (SAC). However even many of today's protected sites have suffered habitat loss or destruction since they were studied by Rothschild and his colleagues. Around 35 of the sites are now managed as nature reserves by Wildlife Trusts.
As a scientist, Rothschild understood the need for hard evidence and practical actions
Looking down Rothschild’s list, what strikes me is the extraordinary range of places he deemed worthy of preservation. Classic nature reserves such as Wicken and Woodwalton Fens rub shoulders with well-known wildlife hotspots including Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, Kenfig in South Wales, and Blakeney Point in North Norfolk.
But sadly others have been devastated by development, or simply vanished in the mists of time. Harlestone Heath in Northamptonshire, once one of the county’s most important botanical areas, has been reduced to a tiny fragment of acid grassland. Redlodge Warren in the Suffolk Brecks has been cut in two by the A11 trunk road, while Freshney Bog, on the edge of Grimsby, was turned into a rubbish dump during the Second World War, and completely destroyed as a result.
Other sites have undergone changes that Rothschild could never have foreseen. Goonhilly Downs, on the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall, is home to a satellite tracking station – once the largest in the world – yet is still an excellent example of heathland. A nuclear power station has been built at Dungeness, yet the peninsula remains a haven for birds.
But for me the most heart-warming stories are those where a site came to the very brink of destruction, but has since been reclaimed and restored for wildlife.
Greenham Common, near Newbury in Berkshire, was famous during the 1980s for the women’s peace camp, protesting against the basing of US nuclear warheads there. But since the airfield was closed in 1993, the site has been reclaimed as one of the best areas of lowland heath in southern Britain.
Just down the road from my home on the Somerset Levels, Shapwick Heath also has a story to tell. Today the reserve is part of the Avalon Marshes complex, a vast area of wetland that is home to otters and egrets, bitterns and marsh harriers, and a wealth of other wildlife.
But during the second half of the 20th century Shapwick Heath was almost destroyed by peat production. Only when the conservationists stepped back in, and began to restore this unique wetland landscape to something approaching its original state, did the wildlife finally return. As I take my children there to watch dragonflies and waterbirds, I am grateful that a century ago one man had the vision to put places like this on the map.
Tragically, Charles Rothschild did not live to see the fruits of his labours. In 1923, aged just 46 and suffering from depression, he committed suicide. But his legacy was immense: not just in the wild places he identified and preserved, but also through his eldest daughter Miriam. She became one of the 20th century’s leading scientists, conservationists and nature writers, and ensured that her father’s work continued.
The last word should go to Miriam, who in her book Rothschild’s Reserves: Time and fragile nature, co-written with Peter Marren in 1997, gave this mixed verdict on his legacy:
Ours is a sad story. If only these places had been preserved, how much richer our heritage would be today! But this book is also the story of a ‘green’ idea before its time…
Thanks to visionary men like Charles Rothschild, and those that followed in his footsteps, we still have some wild places where people and wildlife can continue to co-exist, now and in the future.
Stephen Moss is a naturalist, author and broadcaster, and Vice-President of the Somerset Wildlife Trust. His latest book, Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: the natural history of an English Village, is now available.