Professor Aubrey Manning OBE – a tribute from The Wildlife Trusts

Aubrey Manning

On Saturday we lost one of our greatest advocates for the natural world. Aubrey Manning was our former President and a great supporter of The Wildlife Trusts. A brilliant naturalist and educator.

24th April 1930 – 20th October 2018

President of The Wildlife Trusts 2005 – 2010 and Chair of the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s governing Council 1990 -1996

“Conservation of the natural world is not a luxury.  It is essential for us just as for all living things.  They need clean air, clean water, good soil and space - so do we.”

“I always think of the words Plato ascribed to Socrates: ‘Without love there is no wisdom, only learning’ and we have to learn to love the natural world.”

Animal behaviourist, professor of natural history, nature conservationist, broadcaster and writer – his first publication was with a school friend on wood warblers – Aubrey Manning brought radical and charismatic leadership to The Wildlife Trusts and was a pioneer in putting people at the heart of nature conservation. His own love of nature took off when his family moved to the Surrey countryside to avoid the Blitz during World War II. He went on to believe passionately that people are part of the natural world, not separate from it – in this he was ahead of his time – and The Wildlife Trusts are true to his ethos to this day.

Nigel Doar, a friend and sometime colleague within the Wildlife Trust movement for 27 years, says:

“While he was chair at Scottish Wildlife Trust he encouraged the growth of urban nature conservation – supporting action to help nature to flourish in cities and enabling people to feel connected to nature no matter where they live. This went against the traditional view at the time – but he was always very clear in his view that people need to have an emotional and intellectual connection to the natural world because it’s good for them and it’s good for the natural world too.”

Aubrey was an inspirational leader who recognised the need for nature conservationists to be campaigning – looking to change how society relates to the natural world, not only look after nature reserves. He believed that people cannot be separate from the environment in which they live – that the two need to be addressed together. He led a period of change at the Scottish Wildlife Trust when the charity began to open-up wildlife reserves as spaces for people to visit and connect with the natural world and became more vocal against damaging activities such as open cast mining and the relentless catastrophe of peat extraction.

Nigel Doar recalls Aubrey’s eye for an opportunity:

“He called us one day saying he’d heard that a fund set up to enable the EU nature directives to be implemented was receiving very few applications from the UK, and none from Scotland.  Between us we secured a bid for £350,000 – which was a lot of money in those days – to restore Scottish lowland raised bogs. That project alone went on to achieve so much for peatland conservation and had an added benefit of bringing an outstanding group of young conservationists into the Wildlife Trust movement – many of them who are still here, plugging away.”

Aubrey supported The Wildlife Trusts centenary celebrations in 2012 by contributing to a film charting the history of the movement.  He was fascinated by its founder Charles Rothschild, and by the extraordinary survey of the whole of the British Isles which Rothschild completed in 1915. This identified 284 sites of importance to wildlife that were particularly worthy of protection. “I think Rothschild recognized that some places simply needed to be preserved and, as it were, taken out of development – that we were to see them as something precious in their own right” said Aubrey in the film, adding: “It’s astonishing to see the sophistication of his vision.”

“His public profile, knowledge and kinship with The Wildlife Trusts, coupled with his thoughtful and impartial contributions to debates on the movement’s future, gave it the confidence to move forward during a period of unparalleled reform.”

Tim Sands, writing in Wildlife in Trust, explains Aubrey’s own significant contribution to The Wildlife Trusts:

“His public profile, knowledge and kinship with The Wildlife Trusts, coupled with his thoughtful and impartial contributions to debates on the movement’s future, gave it the confidence to move forward during a period of unparalleled reform.”

Aubrey was a great communicator, as a writer, a broadcaster and as a speaker at many a Wildlife Trust get-together. Nigel Doar was in the audience at Sheffield Wildlife Trust’s AGM when Aubrey discovered that the slideshow he’d put together for the occasion had gone missing. Nigel says:

“Aubrey didn’t flinch. He stood at the front of the hall and invited us all to close our eyes and imagine the bare rock of planet earth as it floated through space at the beginning of time. He was a brilliant speaker who made his audience feel connected to the history of the planet – and that our lives are intimately and emotionally joined to the expanse of life on earth.”

Aubrey Manning

Professor Aubrey Manning, 1930 – 20th October 2018

Stephanie Hilborne, OBE, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, recalls the fun of those days:

“During his time as President Aubrey travelled the length and breadth of the country giving talks to members and local people. One day he spoke at two Annual General Meetings in turn racing up to Oxford from Guildford to stand on a different stage.  I drove him, Aubrey was map reading. So enchanting was the conversation – always – that I was totally unaware we were travelling on the M4 not the M40. He took us off at Junction 8-9 and we couldn’t work out where the A40 had gone. It wasn’t there. We made it though and he was back on stage. And each talk was transfixing. Aubrey communicated his knowledge so elegantly and clearly. He genuinely saw the moment we were living in, the Anthropocene, through the eyes of geological time in the context of the galaxy.”

Aubrey inspired future scientists and environmentalists with these talks and TV programmes such as BBC2’s Earth Story. Of the importance of bringing children closer to nature, he said:

“Encourage a child to enjoy the natural world and it will help their health and their sense of self-worth. It may lead to a love of science too and will certainly engender respect and love for all living things. Such experiences continue their influence throughout life. Education involving wildlife is less about straightforward teaching and more about engaging.”

Steve Warman of Cornwall Wildlife Trust reminisces that, way back, he was Ranger at St Abb’s Head, Berwickshire. Aubrey would arrive with a great gang of undergraduates and, by the end of the field trip, they would all be enchanted by the arcane ratio between the ‘Bridled’ morph of Guillemots and the more common ‘ordinary’ Guillemots. Not an easy sell but he managed it.

Peter Young, trustee of The Wildlife Trusts remembers being at Edinburgh University and attending Aubrey’s lectures in Biological Sciences department along with up to 300 students – all because Aubrey’s lectures were legendary.  The University would schedule his lectures for 9am on a Monday morning because it was the only way to get the students out of bed. The lecture hall would be packed to the seams and the students were never disappointed.

Stephanie Hilborne OBE, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts recalls:

“Aubrey was a unique man, someone who loved wildlife and its diversity and intricacy with unsurpassed passion.  The vehemence with which he loved our world was extraordinary and his impact on all who heard him, met him or indeed saw him on film was similar. He was a much-loved man whose passing is a great loss to the world but his time with us has been a real joy.

“Anyone who talked to Aubrey could not fail to be struck by the depth of his humanity. His big brown eyes were attentive and eager. They listened to people, properly, a skill few people have. But then he was a professor of animal behaviour and he was watching for your behaviour, waiting for any fascinating facts he might not have known or views or beliefs, wanting to work you out. The next minute he would be looking just as deeply into the eyes of a blackbird. The strength of his connection to other animals was immense.

“The intensity of his anger towards those that disregard wildlife and destroy our ecosystems was unchanged to the end. He was furious that the people making the decisions about this fragile planet knew nothing about it. But his fury was not bitter or harsh – it was powerful and empowering – and Aubrey brought this humour to everything he did. Even when chairing committees to decide on grant distribution, he made life fun. One time we were discussing basking shark conservation and most of us knew a few headline facts and may have seen the odd double fin from a boat or a cliff. We went on talking until Aubrey said ‘when I last dissected a stranded basking shark…’ as if it was something totally ordinary.”

Aubrey Manning’s résumé that he used to send out to Wildlife Trusts in advance of presidential duties speaking at similar events, provides a fascinating glimpse into his motivations. Extracts include:

“Born 1930 in London, brought up in Surrey and attended Strode’s School Egham, an old fashioned grammar school.  Read Zoology at University College London and post-graduate work on animal behaviour at Merton College Oxford under Niko Tinbergen. After two year’s National Service in the Royal Artillery joined the University of Edinburgh as an assistant lecturer in Zoology rising to Professor of Natural History.  Currently Professor Emeritus after retirement in 1997. Main research and teaching interests are on animal behaviours, its development and evolution.  Introductory text book on this subject, An Introduction to Animal Behaviours, (five editions and much translated) the last two editions co-authored with Marian Dawkins. Also published extensively in academic journals.

Still much involved with conservation in the broad sense. Lifelong love of the natural world beginning, as do so many in Britain, as a birdwatcher (my first publication was with a school friend on wood warblers!) but extending as I become more biologically informed. I was Chair of the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Council for six busy years (1990-1996). At this time and until 1998 I was a member of the RSNC Council.  I have always been particularly concerned with the problems presented by human populations, their growth and the possibilities for control, beginning in 1996 with the original – and now defunct – UK Conservation Society, which was the first to emphasise that human members are an essential and crucial component of any plans for the future. Currently I am a Patron of the British Optimum Population Trust.  I was also an adviser to the US Negative Population Growth Organisation and served on the Wellcome Trust’s Population Studies Panel.

Recent work with radio and TV for the BBC has led to new interests in the Earth sciences and the way in which they integrate with the life sciences; co-operating with Earth scientists to promote the holistic education of both fields at all levels. This has led to various initiatives regarding the better public understanding of science in general.  This should involve not just better communication of the findings of science but a true appreciation of science as part of our culture; ie the human processes of scientific behaviour involve the same intellectual and emotional activities as those of music, literature, painting etc.”


In a wonderful article for the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s magazine, Jamie Grant, wrote that “Although immensely frustrated by the reckless degradation of wildlife habitats and the wider environment, Manning remains ‘a fan of the human species’ and is convinced that we can find a better balance with nature.” 

He will be very much missed.

Aubrey Manning

Aubrey Manning