Celebrating 100 years of wildlife success stories

It was on May 16, 1912 that a banker, landowner, naturalist and scientist named Charles Rothschild got together with like-minded enthusiasts to whip up support for an idea that was astonishingly ahead of its time.

Decades before intensive agricultural practices began to take their full toll and more than half a century before the words 'climate change' had passed anyone's lips, they resolved to identify and protect the very best of the UK's wild places.

It was the first time anyone had come up with a vision for nature conservation and it led to the formation of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves which would later become The Wildlife Trusts movement.

Before 1912, the emphasis had been on trying to protect individual species, but Rothschild's plan was to safeguard the places where wildlife lived – the moors, meadows, woods and fens under attack from rapid modernisation.

An expert entomologist, he succeeded in enlisting the support of 50 fellows of the Royal Society, foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey and future prime minister Neville Chamberlain, while the speaker of the House of Commons, James Lowther, became the first president.


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From that spark of an idea – and the 339 acres of wild fenland that Rothschild first bought to save for nature – grew a movement across the UK that would see a network of trusts acquiring new reserves.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) was the very trust to be established with the purchase by Dr Sydney Long of 400 acres of marsh at Cley on the North Norfolk coast in 1926 to be held 'in perpetuity as a bird-breeding sanctuary'.

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Providing a blueprint for nature conservation which has now been replicated across the UK, Cley Marshes is still one of the flagship reserves in Britain.

Brendan Joyce, director of NWT, expressed pride at being able to 'carry on the work of visionaries such as Charles Rothschild and Dr Sydney Long' and highlighted the increasingly important role of trusts today in the battle against habitat loss caused by man's activities and climate change.

The recent purchase of a site at Methwold, near Thetford, highlighted its strategy of securing replacement habitat.

A joint project with the Environment Agency would transform the arable land into a wetland with reedbeds as a habitat for bitterns to compensate for the future loss of habitat at Cley.

Mr Joyce said the trust's major focus across the county was its Living Landscapes campaign, aiming to make more space for wildlife to adapt to climate change.

A prime example was its ongoing work in buying land around Upton and South Walsham on the Broads to connect habitats and make them bigger.

Hickling Broad was one of the original 284 Rothschild reserves and perfectly illustrates the more recent move toward wider landscape recovery. It is the focus of much habitat management work at the moment with 5,000 hectares of wetland habitat being restored in the Upper Thurne broads.

The project involves creating extensive new wetland areas, enhancing arable farmland for wildlife and providing new opportunities to enjoy, understand and value the natural environment.

NWT is also paying increasing attention to educational and family-friendly events such as the successful Go Wild at Barton at the weekend.

Julian Roughton, chief executive of Suffolk Wildlife Trust, said it had been a relatively late starter with SWT being formed in 1961 and celebrating its 50th anniversary last year.

One of the original motivations had been to take over and address the decline of Redgrave and Lopham fen on the Norfolk-Suffolk border and in the past 10 years it had seen 'fantastic' results with its restoration as a wetland.

He said: 'From modest beginnings, SWT now controls 7,500 acres and over 50 nature reserves.'

Current work on creating new wetlands on the Broads sites of Carlton and Oulton marshes were part of its own Living Landscapes initiative.

'Our aims have switched over the years from safeguarding areas from destruction to linking them up, extending them and working with landowners.'

Simon King, the Wildlife Trusts' president, said: 'Over the past 100 years, we have seen phenomenal changes take place in the UK – and we of course have been the architects of most of them. In recent decades many of these changes have been for the better, with trends of extinction reversed, habitats protected or restored and the natural world finding a place in our constitution more often than ever before.

'The spark of Rothschild's idea – to procure land with a view to ensuring our wild neighbours have safe haven – took a while to kindle. But the spark was sufficient to burn brightly in the hearts and minds of a few, who became a few more, which developed a community that, 100 years on, has blossomed into one of the most significant conservation movements in the world.'

For trust information visit www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or www.suffolkwildlifetrust.org

stephen.pullinger@archant.co.uk

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