Travel The early-1900s banker who saved Britain’s countryside

The early-1900s banker who saved Britain’s countryside

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Rothschild set up the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR), which went on to become The Wildlife Trusts, who today look after more than 2,300 UK nature reserves (more than the number of McDonald’s).

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, tells me that “60 per cent of the UK population lives within three miles of a Wildlife Trust reserve… the concept of nature reserves is well established now, but this idea was ground-breaking in his [Rothschild’s] day.”

Focus on the Fens

All this began in the Fens in the east of England, the low-lying and fertile lands between Lincoln in the north, Cambridge in the south and Peterborough in the west, where the rich soil is peaty and almost black. Walking in the National Nature Reserves (NNRs) of Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen is the closest you’ll get to seeing the natural landscape that Rothschild glimpsed more than a century ago, but staggeringly, less than one per cent of undrained, uncultivated fenland survives today – and this was only saved because Rothschild stepped in to purchase the land in 1911.

On a cold autumn evening, a century since the death of Rothschild in 1923, Woodwalton Fen felt comfortingly damp, the sky darkening overhead.  Great Fen monitoring and research officer Henry Stanier walked with me, identifying bird calls and talking a little about the area’s long history.

“Wild fenland has all but disappeared. Locals would hunt wildfowl and dig peat using ‘bog boats’, flat-bottomed punts like the ones you see in Cambridge, to navigate the meres and man-made ditches,” he said.

Henry showed me around Rothschild’s stilted bungalow, the banker’s retreat in the fenlands, and shared Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust’s vision of this fenland forming part of a huge new wetland landscape called the Great Fen.

The 50-year-project to connect the fragments of Woodwalton Fen and Holme Fen will create a mosaic of habitats, a “living landscape” and work on nearby farmland to create a wetland corridor and experiment with wet farming (paludiculture) has already begun. From the northeast edge of Woodwalton Fen you can see the stubble of fields after harvesting, but there are already bitterns inspecting the wet ditches, and merlins zipping across the open landscape. Beyond the farm, I could make out the thick treeline of Holme Fen, the largest birch woodland in lowland England, managed by Natural England.

Britain’s first nature reserve

Rothschild initially intended to gift the fenland he purchased in 1911 to the National Trust, but they declined. Undeterred, he went on to set up the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR), which purchased Woodwalton Fen in 1919 and created the country’s first nature reserve. But it wasn’t only the Fens that Rothschild fought to protect, he wanted to extend protection to natural habitats across the country.

In the book Wildlife in Trust – A Hundred Years of Nature Conservation, Tim Sands writes: “His idea was to use the Society to persuade others of the ‘desirability in preserving in perpetuity sites suitable for nature reserves’. The plan was to ‘undertake a nationwide survey of such sites with the help of local societies and individuals’.”

The SPNR visited some sites and sent questionnaires out to others – once completed they were filed away individually in Rothschild’s distinct blue banking envelopes. Eventually, Rothschild had his list of 284 sites and submitted them to the government. Today, some of these sites have been lost to time or devastated by development, but many more are now owned and managed by a range of organisations including The Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust, RSPB, agencies such as Natural England or Scottish Natural Heritage, or local groups.

Success stories include Blean Woods in Kent, one of the largest areas of ancient woodland in England; Braunton Burrows in Devon, England’s largest sand-dune system, now part of a Unesco Biosphere Reserve; islands in Scotland including Foula, St Kilda and Ailsa Craig, all protected for their birdlife; and remote sites in Wales, like Holyhead Mountain in Anglesey, with its rare plants.

It’s sobering to realise that despite the black-and-white photos of a severe-looking man in a  Victorian morning suit, Charles Rothschild was relatively young when he set out to save Britain’s natural habitats. In 1912, when he held a first meeting in the National History Museum to discuss the idea of forming a society, he was 35 years old. However, despite having seemingly boundless energy, Rothschild was described by his daughter as a “lonely and isolated figure” and after contracting encephalitis, he died by suicide in 1923.

His foresight in recognising that rare habitats needed protecting by law led to the creation of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949, which ultimately led to many of Britain’s most important spaces for wildlife and recreation being saved from destruction.

For more information about Rothschild’s List and the Great Fen Living Landscape seewildlifetrusts.org. Rachel Mills stayed south of the Fens near Houghton atEagle Mill (doubles from £105).

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