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Pioneering work led to landmark legislation
8:40am Thursday 17th May 2012 in Country matters
Exactly one hundred years ago this week Charles Rothschild, a man with extraordinary foresight and vision, whose passion was the complexity of the natural world and the need to defend special wild places, set up the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR), the organisation that would become the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts.
Even in those relatively innocent days at the beginning of the 20th century, wildlife was suffering from the onslaught of increasing development and agricultural intensification.
This was decades before the widespread use of agrochemicals and modern intensive farming methods that characterised the second half of the century which led to the widespread crash in numbers of common wild flowers, birds and insects. And it was more than 60 years before the words ‘climate change’ entered our vocabulary.
Rothschild knew that modern development would destroy wild places and he wanted to defend them so that people could learn about and enjoy the natural world. He also knew that his vision could only be achieved through a combination of legislation and local voluntary action.
The SPNR’s main aims were to collect and collate information about areas of land that retained their ‘primitive condition’ or contained rare and local species at risk of extinction due to development or de-forestation, and were vulnerable because of ‘the cupidity of collectors’. Rothschild adopted a systematic approach to identifying areas in need of protection, with a conservation policy based on sound survey and research — fundamental principles that The Wildlife Trusts uphold today.
Leading Oxford botanist George Claridge Druce, an original SPNR Council member, took part in the nationwide survey to identify ‘sites worthy of preservation’, and by 1915 a list of 284 potential nature reserves, known as ‘Rothschild Reserves’, had been created.
Among them was the Ruskin Reserve at Cothill. This tiny nature reserve, just 4.5 acres of calcareous fen owned by the Ashmolean Natural History Society of Oxfordshire, was even then regarded as a highly-endangered habitat.
Thanks largely to the efforts of the SPNR, the Government passed the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949, creating National Nature Reserves and designating Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
This legislation was a landmark for nature conservation. It was especially remarkable that the Government was prepared to show such great vision, passing this Act at a time of severe austerity and massive national debt.
Nature conservation had become a governmental responsibility, and new designations meant land could be protected for wildlife. But most sites on Rothschild’s list were not included.
Local experts had proposed numerous vulnerable wildlife sites for protection, but in Oxfordshire only two, Aston Rowant and Ruskin Reserve at Cothill, were initially designated National Nature Reserves and it was a similar picture across the rest of the country.
Undoubtedly it was this concern for unprotected wildlife sites that led local committees to form county-based Wildlife Trusts, and become local wildlife champions encouraging people to help create and protect nature reserves in their locality.
The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust was formed in 1960, and set about acquiring important wildlife habitats at risk such as chalk grassland, wetlands and traditional hay meadows.
Today, thanks to Charles Rothschild’s foresight 100 years ago, The Wildlife Trusts between them own and manage over 2,000 nature reserves supported by more than 800,000 members who want to protect wildlife and save wild places on land and in the sea.
Next week’s article will look at how BBOWT continues Rothschild’s vision by safeguarding local wildlife in Oxfordshire. To find out more about the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust visit www.bbowt.org.uk. Information about the centenary, including maps of Rothschild Reserves, at www.wildlifetrusts.org