Nature Reserves

Protecting wildlife sites

Nature reserves

Kingcombe Meadows ADDER'S PLOT - Colin Varndell and Mike Read

One way we try to re-establish a thriving natural world is to identify and seek protection for the most rich and diverse remaining habitats. Wildlife Trusts have often had to take these places into ownership as nature reserves in order to safeguard them for the future. Today The Wildlife Trusts care for more than 2,300 nature reserves across the UK. Most people live within a few miles of one of our nature reserves.

History of our nature reserves

In 1912 Charles Rothschild founded the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (which later became The Wildlife Trusts), and first proposed the idea of seeking out the best places for wildlife in Britain and promoting them as ‘nature reserves’. 

Areas had been set aside for wildlife before, but these were chiefly sanctuaries where the killing of wildlife was controlled or banned altogether. In contrast, Rothschild saw his reserves as examples of the very best places for the whole complexity of nature, and a defence against changing land use that was destroying more and more natural habitats.

In 1919 Rothschild gifted Woodwalton Fen - one of the last remaining fragments of wild fenland - to the Society and it became its first major nature reserve.

Whilst the ensuing hundred years has seen The Wildlife Trusts expand and develop our work to include habitat restoration projects, landowner advice, work with schools and community groups, targeted species conservation and political campaigning - owning and managing protected sites as nature reserves is still a core part of our work.

From seashore to mountain top

Collectively The Wildlife Trusts now manage around 2,300 nature reserves including all imaginable habitats - bogs, moors, mountains, ancient woods, wildflower meadows, heaths, urban nature parks, caves, lakes, islands, beaches, cliffs and disused quarries. Our nature reserves range from a whole mountain in Scotland (Ben Mor Coigach) to a single ancient hawthorn tree in Norfolk (the Hethel Old Thorn). Wildlife Trusts continue to acquire new nature reserves, and nature reserves are now also extended and reconnected where the opportunities exist to do this.

Places for people

Over 100 of our nature reserves have visitor centres where you can find out more about the reserve and the wildlife it is helping to protect.  These range from small wooden buildings to state-of-the-art eco-friendly visitor centres, complete with cafes and classrooms. Many also have shops where you can buy nature and wildlife goods and gifts.

What are nature reserves?

Apart from certain coastal areas, little of our countryside is completely natural - it has been influenced and shaped by humans for many thousands of years. 

Nature reserves are places where wildlife – plants and animals - is protected and undisturbed, and this can sometime mean continuing with or restoring the old-time land management practices which originally helped to make them wildlife-rich.

One example is the coppicing of woodland. When the last ice age eased, a tangled wildwood spread across much of the lowlands. This was cleared for farming and, by medieval times, the remaining woodland was patchy. Much of it was worked as "coppice" - every seven to ten years trees and shrubs were cut down to stumps which threw up a new head of straightish branches or "small wood". Strengthened by the open light after the cut, woodland flowers flourished and many woodland reserves are now coppiced to encourage wildflowers such as bluebells. Nightingales like the dense low growth of new coppice but tend to leave when it becomes more mature, usually after around seven years of growth.

There are places such as quarries, canals railway cuttings which, although originally industrial, have become populated by a variety of plant and animal life. Some are now nature reserves or form part of one.

Many of our members have also created small scale wildlife habitats in their own back yards, mixing traditional garden plants with wild plants to encourage wildlife to visit their gardens.

Membership and access to our nature reserves

We want to ensure that everyone has access to nature near where they live. The vast majority of Wildlife Trust nature reserves in the UK are free for anyone to enter (around 98%) but some reserves do require a permit (usually restricted to members only) when the wildlife on site is especially sensitive. For those with a charge (usually nature reserves with visitor facilities) some Trusts allow members of any Wildlife Trust to have free access and other Wildlife Trusts restrict free entry to their own members. The income from entry fees is vital to meet the running costs of the visitor facilities (parking, hides, wardens etc).

Information on entry fees, parking and access is usually available via a Wildlife Trust's website. You can browse our nature reserves and link through to their web pages for all Wildlife Trusts.