The Wildlife in Trust: A Hundred Years of Nature Conservation

The Wildlife in Trust: A Hundred Years of Nature Conservation

by Tim Sands

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In May 1912, banker and naturalist, Charles Rothschild, laid the foundations for nature conservation as we know it today. His new organisation, the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves had one main objective - to save Britain's finest wildlife sites. Wildlife in Trust is a history of The Wildlife Trusts. It charts the changing fortunes of UK wildlife and the nature conservation movement founded to protect it. Beginning with Rothschild's first list of potential nature reserves in 1915, it covers: the landmark political Acts, the explosion of the local Trust movement in the 1960s and its subsequent development; the salvage and rescue operation to save woods, meadows, wetlands, bogs, and heaths; the dawn of marine conservation; the decline and recovery of species like the otter, plus the move to restore wildlife across whole landscapes. This is a tale of local activism, visionary leaders, hard-fought campaigns, organisational growing pains and battles lost and won. Wildlife in Trust is divided into three sections: a history of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts; individual histories of all 47 Wildlife Trusts in their own words plus a comprehensive reference section. The book features more than 300 photographs and maps - including many from The Wildlife Trusts' archives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781908739919
Publisher: Elliott & Thompson
Publication date: 02/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 792
File size: 47 MB
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About the Author

Tim Sands, has worked for more than 45 years in wildlife conservation, experiencing and influencing at first hand the dramatic development of the non-Governmental sector. For much of this time he has been involved with The Wildlife Trusts, helping to lead on issues, including better protection for badgers, otters, wetlands, and peatlands.

Read an Excerpt

Wildlife in Trust

A Hundred Years of Nature Conservation

By Tim Sands

Elliott and Thompson Limited

Copyright © 2012 The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-908739-91-9


Beginning and belief 1912–1939

Here and there in these islands are to be found bits of 'wilderness' where some of the ancient life – now so rapidly being destroyed – still flourishes.

From Diversions of a Naturalist by Sir Ray Lankester, 1915

It is Thursday 16th May 1912, 30 years since the death of Charles Darwin, a few weeks since Captain Robert Scott perished on his heroic polar expedition and two years before the start of the First World War. The Times carries a full report of the latest evidence in the 15 day-old inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic. On this sunny but blustery May day, CHARLES ROTHSCHILD has arranged to get together with three others – CHARLES EDWARD FAGAN, Assistant Secretary at the Natural History Museum in London; WILLIAM ROBERT OGILVIE-GRANT, its Assistant Keeper of Zoology and the HONORABLE FRANCIS ROBERT HENLEY, a fellow Northamptonshire landowner and close friend. He wants to discuss with them his ideas for a new society, ideas that he has been pondering for a dozen or more years. Rothschild plans to call the new society – the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR). Its main aim will be "to urge by means of the press, by personal efforts, and by correspondence with local societies and individuals the desirability of preserving in perpetuity sites suitable for nature reserves".

The four men who met that day could never have imagined the huge changes that would befall society and the British countryside in the decades to come; nor the central role their new Society would play in the nation's response to those changes.


The idea of protecting wildlife habitats rather than individual species of wildlife was not at the forefront of thinking at the time. During the previous century, studying the natural world had remained popular and, although the threats to plants and animals had been recognised, the main focus had been on legislation to stop cruelty and over-collecting. The emphasis was not on safeguarding sites nor, still less, on changing land-use policy. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), founded in 1824 to reduce cruelty to domestic animals, such as cows and horses, had widened its brief first to stop bear-baiting and cockfighting and later in the century to bird protection. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) had been formed in 1889 to stop the killing of thousands of birds, such as egrets, herons and birds of paradise, for their feathers as fashion accessories.

What Rothschild was now proposing was a society to develop a broader-based, more coherent policy towards the protection of wildlife. His plan was twofold: first, to identify wildlife areas in the country 'worthy of preservation' and second, to encourage others to acquire the sites and to look after them. In the first place, the proposal was to hand over sites to The National Trust for protection under special conditions.

ROTHSCHILD'S ideas were not widely accepted or understood. Indeed, for many, establishing sanctuaries for wildlife was considered a very expensive solution and one likely to attract the attention of collectors. The historian, John Sheail, writes, "during the first twenty or thirty years of its existence the SPNR and its concept of nature reserves were outside the mainstream of the nature preservation movement, which was primarily concerned with crushing cruelty towards animals and such practices as bird-catching and egg-collecting".

Undaunted, the Society held its first formal meeting on 26th July 1912 in the Board Room of the Natural History Museum in London when the nature and objects of the Society were outlined by Rothschild from the chair. They were to:

"collect and collate information as to areas of land in the United Kingdom which retain primitive conditions and contain rare and local species liable to extinction owing to building, drainage and disafforestation, or in consequence of the cupidity of collectors;

prepare a scheme showing which areas should be secured;

obtain these areas and hand them over to The National Trust under such conditions as may be necessary;

preserve for posterity as a national possession some part at least of our native land, its fauna, flora and geological features;

encourage the love of nature, and to educate public opinion to a better knowledge of the value of nature study".

It was agreed to publicise these through a circular to members, the many existing independent local natural history societies and the press. It was also agreed to invite the Speaker of the House of Commons, James Lowther MP, (see ULLSWATER, VISCOUNT) to become the Society's first PRESIDENT.


It would be a year before the Society decided to proceed with incorporating itself as a limited company. However, an 'unexpected delay' in its Memorandum and Articles being approved by the Board of Trade meant that by February 1914 it was considering becoming incorporated by Royal Charter instead. Things moved slowly and almost two years passed before the Society finally went ahead and petitioned the Privy Council for a Charter of incorporation – a Royal Charter. This was soon granted and was duly signed by King George V on 20th September 1916. The Society adopted a RED KITE, drawn by the naturalist and accomplished wildlife artist GEORGE EDWARD LODGE, as its first LOGO three years later.

There was no intention that the Society should be an open or democratic organisation. There were places for up to 50 members of Council and an unlimited number of Associates. All members of Council were elected for life or until they resigned, so there was little opportunity for replacing inactive members or bringing in new blood. Candidates for election as Associates had to be recommended from 'personal knowledge' by two members of the Society. Decisions were taken by a few individuals on the Society's Executive Committee and to a lesser extent on its Council and relied heavily on ROTHSCHILD himself.

At the fourth meeting of the Executive in June 1913, Sir Robert Hunter "deprecated the proposals" to incorporate the Society as a limited company and the rights this might give to Associate members was questioned. It was not until 1923 that the Society felt any compunction to communicate with its Associates and began to publish a HANDBOOK containing brief accounts of the Society's activities, a short annual report and a list of members. The first edition of the Handbook acknowledged that the Associates "might justifiably suppose that it (the Society) is inert or even moribund". The editorial tried, rather unconvincingly, to blame the previous lack of communication on the fact that the Society, as a rule, had had to "act quietly and unobtrusively lest by directing public attention to a particular area it should bring about the destruction of what it desired to preserve". It would be 1943 before the Society held its first General Meeting in the apartments of the Linnean Society of London at Burlington House.


In addition to his three co-founders, ROTHSCHILD gathered around him a formidable group of people. Among them was a future Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and a high-ranking civil servant, Sir Sydney Olivier – the Permanent Secretary at the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries. On the Council were his friend and neighbour, the 'king of plants', GEORGE CLARIDGE DRUCE, and the eminent plant ecologist, Arthur George Tansley. Sir Robert Hunter, one of the three founding figures of The National Trust, attended the first few meetings but was replaced as The National Trust's representative on his death in 1913 by Francis Wall Oliver, Professor of Botany at University College London. There were also four Members of Parliament – the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey; the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Right Honourable Lewis Harcourt; Liberal MP for Chesterton and later Secretary of State for India, Edwin Samuel Montagu; and the Liberal MP for Walworth (later for Southwark South East), James Arthur Dawes, who was appointed as the Society's Honorary Solicitor in June 1913. Across the membership there were no less than 50 Fellows of the Royal Society. By April 1914, at the time of the first Council meeting, there were 33 Council members and 173 Associates, all potential helpers in the task of compiling Rothschild's proposed list of nature reserves (ROTHSCHILD'S LIST).

With Rothschild's enthusiasm, influential friends and money the Society's first few years were very productive. It concentrated on preparing its schedule of areas of wildlife importance in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

In December 1912, The Times had published an article, drafted in part by Rothschild, and a special leader publicising the launch of the Society. Reflecting views that would become all too familiar later in the century, the article quoted a recent address to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Dundee by Dr Chalmers Mitchell, Secretary of the Zoological Society of London. He had reminded his audience that "each generation is the guardian of the existing resources of the world; it has come into a great inheritance, but only as a trustee". The article continued, "to carry out the objects of the Society prompt action must be taken, for year by year suitable areas become fewer; and local plants and insects are found to have been extirpated when acquisition of a few acres of land would have saved them. Such land is often unsuitable for other purpose; an isolated spot on Government property, a piece of marshland, a bird-haunted cliff, or a stretch of wood and copse where the undergrowth has been allowed to follow its own devices are admirable subjects for nature reserves". The leading article refers to "an urban as well as a rural exodus; and the sum of these movements threaten to destroy both the old densely-packed city areas and the old 'unspoilt' country and to substitute a sort of universal suburbanism". However, the article ends on an optimistic note. "The new Society bids fair to provide an admirable organisation for arousing and giving effect to the interest of the public in this cause, and it deserves active support in every county".

There were at least 50 other press articles over the coming months, largely stimulated by the original publicity in The Times. In the Daily Telegraph the zoologist, Sir Ray Lankester, for example, wrote, "there are some coast-side marshes, there are East Anglian fens, some open heath-land, and some bits of forest which are yet unspoilt, un-ravaged by blighting, reckless humanity ... under these circumstances a society has been founded for the formation of 'nature-reserves' in the British Islands ... all who sympathise with the objects of the society should write to the secretary".

To keep things moving, in April 1913 the Society also sent out the planned letter, circular and questionnaire to the many independent local natural history clubs and societies, signed by the Society's joint HONORARY SECRETARIES, asking them to supply information about potential sites.

ROTHSCHILD was at the centre of this activity, coordinating the whole exercise, talking at meetings – for example at a Penzance Chamber of Commerce banquet in February 1914 (see ROTHSCHILD'S LIST) – and visiting and negotiating over sites that he knew about or were brought to his attention. But he also marshalled support, despatching others, mainly friends and members, to all corners of the kingdom.

DRUCE, for example, was "a most willing helper". He travelled to County Kerry, Ireland, in 1914 to check out "an estate at Clooney, on Kenmare Bay, belonging to the Marquis of Lansdowne". The Society's PRESIDENT, James Lowther (see ULLSWATER, VISCOUNT), had been in communication with Lord Lansdowne who "seemed very willing that the Society should 'acquire' the area of land in question". After careful consideration it was decided to refuse the offer. Druce relates how he also examined the "Saltings at Kirby-le-Soken ... Ray Island, Monk's Wood ... Clova and Caenlochan".

In December 1913, Sir Edward Grey informed the Honorary Secretary, OGILVIE-GRANT, that the businessman Andrew Carnegie "had offered to hand over part of his Skibo Castle property in Sutherland, to the west of the Shin, should such ground be suitable for the purposes of forming a nature reserve". The Honorary Secretary and the ornithologist EDMUND GUSTAVUS BLOOMFIELD MEADE-WALDO were asked to visit the area the following summer "to see what possibilities the ground offered". Meade-Waldo was a founder member of the Committee set up in 1903 to protect the RED KITE in Wales and had become famous for his sighting in 1905 of a so-called 'great sea-serpent' at the mouth of the Parahiba River in Brazil! Druce also visited Skibo, but once again the offer was turned down.

The Society's Executive meeting in February 1914, once again chaired by Rothschild, was the most important to date. He came armed with a large number of detailed proposals to take things forward. For example, Rothschild was well aware that if the Society's ideas were to make headway it needed the backing of key players outside the Society, not least backing from the Government. There was no doubting that it already had impressive contacts with the Government at the highest level, but it needed more formal recognition. It was agreed at the meeting to communicate with the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Board of Education to "ascertain whether they were willing to support the Society, and if so, in what way". Among other things, the Society wanted the Boards represented on the Council of the Society. Thomas Fair Husband, a member of the Government's Board of Agriculture and Fisheries (The Ministry of Agriculture from December 1919), did indeed attend the first Council meeting two months later together with the Board's young and recently appointed entomologist, John Claud Fortescue Fryer (see also WOODWALTON FEN).

It was Husband, probably encouraged by Fryer, who alerted Rothschild to a plan for the Government's Development Commission to reclaim extensive areas of 'wasteland' to grow more food – exactly the sorts of places the Society wanted to see as nature reserves. The 'tip-off' was taken as a signal that the Society should complete its survey and make a list of sites available to Government as quickly as possible. At the February meeting it was also suggested that, "in the event of any area scheduled by the SPNR being acquired by the Development Commissioners they be asked to consider if a small portion of the same could not be retained as a nature reserve".

ROTHSCHILD'S ambitions for nature reserves went beyond these shores. At the February meeting he also proposed that the Society "ask the Governments of India, the Crown Colonies and the self-governing Colonies and Dominions to consider the advisability of making reserves, and to offer to furnish those Governments with a scheme suitable for each country. A tract of virgin forest land ought to be secured in the Solomon Islands, also reserves in the Fanning Islands and Seychelles". It was partly as a result of the Society's advice to the New Zealand Government, for example, that the New Zealand Forest and Bird Protection Society was established in 1914.

By April 1914, a list of 98 sites had been compiled and "preliminary negotiations with the owners respecting their acquisition or purchase" were in hand. These negotiations involved many sites familiar to us today – Box Hill in Surrey, the coombs and cliffs of Cornwall between Bude and Boscastle, Dovedale in Derbyshire, Puffin Island off Anglesey and the archipelago of St Kilda – the latter destined to become Scotland's first World Heritage Site in 1986.

The task of analysing the many suggestions for sites, and who owned them, took place during 1914 and 1915 and it was finally possible to submit a provisional typewritten schedule of areas 'worthy of preservation' (ROTHSCHILD'S LIST) to the Board of Agriculture. A bound version, containing 284 sites in Britain and Ireland, was lodged with the Board in the summer of 1915, and a final revised list was submitted a year later.


Excerpted from Wildlife in Trust by Tim Sands. Copyright © 2012 The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. Excerpted by permission of Elliott and Thompson Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Beginning and belief 1912–1939,
2 The war and its aftermath 1940–1949,
3 Crossroads 1950–1959,
4 Defining moments 1960–1969,
5 Taking up the challenge 1970–1979,
6 Widening the horizons 1980–1989,
7 Reconstruction 1990–1994,
8 Partition and partnership 1995–1999,
9 Restoration 2000 and beyond,
10 Postscript,
1 Alderney,
2 Avon,
3 Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire,
4 Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire,
5 Birmingham and Black Country,
6 Brecknock,
7 Cheshire,
8 Cornwall,
9 Cumbria,
10 Derbyshire,
11 Devon,
12 Dorset,
13 Durham,
14 Essex,
15 Gloucestershire,
16 Gwent,
17 Hampshire and Isle of Wight,
18 Herefordshire,
19 Hertfordshire and Middlesex,
20 Isles of Scilly,
21 Kent,
22 Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside,
23 Leicestershire and Rutland,
24 Lincolnshire,
25 London,
26 Manx,
27 Montgomeryshire,
28 Norfolk,
29 Northumberland,
30 North Wales,
31 Nottinghamshire,
32 Radnorshire,
33 Scottish,
34 Sheffield,
35 Shropshire,
36 Somerset,
37 South and West Wales,
38 Staffordshire,
39 Suffolk,
40 Surrey,
41 Sussex,
42 Tees Valley,
43 Ulster,
44 Warwickshire,
45 Wiltshire,
46 Worcestershire,
47 Yorkshire,
The author,

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