Speaking up for Nature
Nature conservation can take many forms, from breeding dormice to documentaries, painting to political lobbying. Kate Green looks at what’s changed in the movement during the past 120 years and asks leading figures to nominate their heroes and inspiration
Kate Green looks at what’s changed in the conservation movement in 120 years and leading figures name their heroes and inspirations
When Country Life was first published in 1897, the words conservation and environment were barely in the lexicon; they hadn’t become providers of employment, subjects of heated debate or political footballs and banana skins. There were no national parks, nature reserves, biodiversity quotas or Government quangos; no celebrities protesting and no dazzling filming techniques.
The weather was a perennial topic, but climate change wasn’t. Land hadn’t been ploughed up to feed the nation through two World Wars and hard times beyond, nor been riven by motorways and high-speed trains. Rivers weren’t polluted by DDT and organophosphates (now banned); hay meadows, ponds and orchards proliferated.
Pine martens, beavers, coypu and lynx had long gone, chiefly exterminated by keepers protecting game birds a century ago. The few animal charities and laws in existence focused on domestic cruelty rather than saving wildlife; collecting birds’ eggs and pinning butterflies to boards were educational hobbies and ivory collecting was rife.
Bird ringing, which helped to fire citizen conservation, didn’t start until about 1909 —Country Life was a pioneer—when some people still believed Victorian naturalist Gilbert White’s theory that swallows spent the winter under ponds (the phenomenon of migration is still not fully understood).
Deer weren’t a nuisance nor hedgehogs endangered and no one envisaged that a project to bring the great bustard back to Salisbury Plain would get an eu grant of €2 million. The anti-hunting movement hardly existed, but the poet D. W. nash had foreseen change —and not for the better—in The Fox’s Prophecy (1871): ‘For swiftly o’er the level shore/the waves of progress ride; The ancient landmarks one by one/shall sink beneath the tide.’
none of this is to say that the state of the landscape was not of interest in the 19th century: Ruskin and Wordsworth promoted the value of beauty, landowners planted great trees and the Rspb—which emily Williamson founded as The Plumage League in protest at birds being killed for hat feathers—began.
‘Today, we can all be conservationists, through volunteering and surveying ’
In north America, a Scotsman, John Muir, was campaigning to preserve Yosemite. Demonstrating that the wheel keeps turning, the ‘father of national parks’ described sheep as ‘hoofed locusts’ and was soon embroiled in a journalistic row about grazing wild areas that could have come straight out of George Monbiot’s Guardian blog.
Until farming subsidies and set-aside arrived in the 1980s, conservation efforts were chiefly down to major landowners; their altruism and vision are still key. Rewilding projects such as those of Sir Charles Burrell at Knepp Castle in West Sussex (Country Life, March 30, 2016), where purple emperor butterflies, turtle doves and nightingales flourish, and Danish billionaire Anders Povlson at Glenfeshie in Scotland, where capercaillie and black grouse have been restored, would be difficult without time, space and other income streams.
Field sportsmen have also played their part in monitoring species, although there can be a wider unwillingness to recognise this. In The Otter’s Tale, author Simon Cooper writes: ‘It is counter-intuitive I know, but when it came to habitat protection and preventing uncontrolled extermination, the hunts were the otter’s best friend.’ Sir Peter Scott, who founded the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, was an ardent wildfowler who drew attention to the threat to waterbirds from the reclamation of marshes. In 1938, he wrote in Country Life that the shooting season should be shortened and formalised: ‘Who, amongst true wildfowlers, would not at once willingly forego a month of his shooting season to ensure that the music of the wild geese may be heard over the moonlit marshes far into the future?’
Single-species devotion might look eccentric to some, but it tends to be effective, as evinced by MP Richard Benyon’s restoration of lapwings, the Duke of norfolk’s efforts with grey partridges, the late Philip Wayre’s mission to put otters back into english rivers, The Prince of Wales’s support for red squirrels, Andrew hoodless’s fascination with woodcock migration, Derek Gow’s championing of beavers and water voles and RSPB triumphs with red kites, choughs and bitterns.
Today, we can all be conservationists, through volunteering, surveying, growing plants for bees, clearing waterways, planting orchards, digging ponds, putting up owl boxes, feeding birds and leaving piles of dead leaves for hedgehogs to curl up in.
We take as examples people from myriad spheres, from peerless presenter Sir David Attenborough to the wildlifefriendly farmer down the road, political figures who bravely change their minds, such as Mark Lynas (on genetically modified (GM) crops), the late Greenpeace leader Stephen Tindale (on nuclear energy) and Jim Barrington (hunting), as well as those with a ready-made public platform such as The Prince, organic pioneer and restorer of meadows, or Jeremy Paxman raising awareness of chalkstream decline. We’ve been inspired by artists —Archibald Thorburn and his natural successor Rodger Mcphail —and lyrical writers Gavin Maxwell, Robert Macfarlane and Adam Nicholson; by scientists Dave Goulson on bumblebees, the late Dick Potts on cereal eco-systems and beetle banks and Alastair Leake at the Allerton Project, which experiments with the effects of farming methods on wildlife. We've also been fired by the energy of Sir John Lister-kaye, who educates thousands of schoolchildren through his field centre at Glen Affric in the Highlands. In Inheritors of the Earth, a work published only this month (Penguin Random
House), author Chris Thomas suggests we should not be downcast at perceived failures in conservation; the subtitle of his book is How Nature is Thriving in an Age
of Extinction. His thought-provoking approach is that we should be less pessimistic: ‘Rather than swim against the tide of ecological and evolutionary change, we should remember that the old was once new.’ Evolution is continuous, he says: ‘Rare species becoming common and common species rare is not a human-created phenomenon that has been invented in the past few centuries.’
Here, we ask figures in the conservation movement to name their inspirations. Who have we missed? Many, no doubt. Let us know through firstname.lastname@example.org ➢
Simon Lester, former gamekeeper
The broadcaster and botanist David Bellamy has infectious enthusiasm; he was an instigator of pragmatic conservation and did great work removing non-native species in Australia.
The Duke of Buccleuch helped fund the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, which concludes this year. It was a brave, honourable and expensive step, but he could see that, if the human aspects of the grouse/raptor conflict were not resolved, then sustainable conservation of the uplands was in jeopardy.
Lindsay Waddell was one of the most respected gamekeepers and the go-to uplands expert for Government.
Mary Colwell, radio producer, has drawn attention to the plight of the curlew and the hen harrier, two very different birds, but involving many of the same advocates. She isn’t frightened to raise inconvenient truths.
Mark Hedges, Editor of Country Life
Steve Tapper’s paper A Question of
Balance, which puts the case that biodiversity has to be managed to be maintained, is a seminal work and Henry Williamson’s books illustrate the interconnectivity of Nature so well.
Owen Williams, artist, founder of the Woodcock Network
I was 14 when I read Sir Peter Scott’s autobiography The Eye of the Wind and it served as a huge inspiration to follow in his footsteps and, like him, turn my passion for Nature and shooting into a career as an artist. My path through shooting to sporting artist and to learning more about woodcock through ringing has some parallels with my hero, although I could never claim to be anywhere near his equal.
Robin Page, chairman of the Countryside Restoration Trust
Dame Miriam Rothschild, with her great knowledge of wildflowers, insects and hay meadows, was a great encouragement to me, as was Gordon Beningfield who, with Miriam, educated me into the world of butterflies. Gordon had dyslexia, but became so eloquent through his art and his talking.
Dot Eaton, who succeeded with breeding dormice where scientists failed, has never had proper recognition for this.
George Adamson, who did so much for Africa, was calm, dedicated and knew what he was doing, despite opposition—he paid the ultimate price.
David Bellamy is another who said what he thought and suffered for it—it’s a great problem that many in the conservation world have closed minds.
David Profumo, author and fishing correspondent
The natural world is a poorer place for the death this month of the indefatigable Icelander Orri Vigfússon. Almost 30 years ago, horrified at the relentless decline in Atlantic-salmon populations, he founded the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, which was dedicated to ending intercepting-mixedstock fisheries, and raised huge sums of money to buy out commercial netting operations on both sides of the Atlantic.
Orri was a practical negotiator who respected the historic rights of netsmen and compensated them by exploring alternative means of livelihood while leaving stocks of Salmo salar alone. Not everyone appreciated my old friend’s maverick style, but generations of salmon reached their natal headwaters as a result and, by heaven, he got things done.
Martin Harper, RSPB conservation director
Rachel Carson’s work on pesticides revolutionised our relationship with chemicals while leading the way for the environmental awakening of the 1960s. The author of
Silent Spring (1962) was the epitome of bravery and brilliance when conveying some inconvenient truths about the impacts of pesticides on wildlife. She stood up for those without voices and, despite ill health, threat of legal action and character assassination, never backed down in the face of the powerful. Rachel showed that change can happen despite the odds.
Andrew Sells, chairman of Natural England
Tristan Voorspuy may have had something of Indiana Jones about him, but that shouldn’t obscure his passion for Nature. Best known for his horseback safaris and
White Mischief-style life, he was one of Africa’s finest conservationists, following such names such as the Craig family at Lewa Downs. In 1999, he and friends bought Sosian, a 24,000-acre ranch that had been heavily grazed. Ten years later, it had 6,000-plus elephants and many other species, demonstrating how farming and conservation can live side by side. This month, 800 people came to a Northamptonshire church to pay tribute to this great contemporary, who died defending the land he loved.
Charles Nodder, National Gamekeepers’ Organisation
Sir Peter Scott was not only an inspired organiser, founding the Worldwide Fund for Nature (with The Duke of Edinburgh), but also an intuitive conservationist, informed as much by personal observation as his pioneering work on netting geese to ring them. His journey from wildfowler to wildfowl conservator is well documented, but he always had room in his mind for bird hunters as well as bird huggers. He was not a one-track conservationist, but enjoyed a rounded life that lent a perspective many of today’s single-issue, research-based conservationists seem to lack.
John Lewis-stempel, farmer and author of The Running Hare
My heroes are the great British public— those who pay their National Trust subs, volunteer for the Wildlife Trusts and help save the green belt—the people who always save Britain.
I admire Sir Peter Scott for Slimbridge, Robin Page for being a yeoman voice against the twin perils of agri-business and Rousseauian ‘re-wilding’—our most threatened habitat is the farmland he adores—and Denys Watkins-pitchford (‘B.B.’). His children’s books, especially the ‘gnome’ novels, taught two, perhaps three generations to appreciate the countryside. Those children are now the great British public.
Lord Deben, former Environment Secretary
No one has spoken of the natural world to urban man more directly than Gerard Manley Hopkins. Long before people spoke of ecology, he highlighted a planet ‘bleared, smeared with toil’ that ‘wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell’. When environmentalism was not a word, his heart soared with the windhover and his eye caught the flash of the kingfisher and before there were conservationists, he fought the destruction of Binsey Poplars and expressed the pain and insult of their fall. Hopkins reached into the heart of the Creation and led generations to understand the glory of the natural world that we have been lent and yet see fit to destroy.
Stephen Moss, author of Wild Kingdom and TV producer Derek Moore was a giant of UK wildlife conservation. He helped create the Scrape at Minsmere and, as director of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, pioneered open access to reserves, worked with farmers to create habitats and was a true evangelist for Nature. Before his untimely death in 2014, he inspired many, including Chris Packham, Iolo Williams and members of the youth group A Focus on Nature. Gregarious and inspiring, he embodied a practical, visionary approach to saving Britain’s wildlife.
Teresa Dent, chief executive of the GWCT
Aldo Leopold is the American conservationist who historically inspired the GWCT. He developed the concept of game management as a science; he didn’t believe in simply protecting Nature from the hand of Man, but in Man learning to manage wildlife better. He worked with farmers, his writing giving them practical advice, peppered with tales from his own Wisconsin farm, but also seeking to inspire them with a love of both their game and wildlife. His book A Sand County Almanac should be compulsory reading.
Ross Murray, CLA president
My old friend Chris Swift calls himself a crofter, but, really, he’s a highly accomplished farmer and naturalist, whose farm near Beauly in Inverness-shire is a haven of wildlife. He was an early adopter of beavers, creator of varied habitats, a birder never without binoculars and a woodcock obsessive. When he goes to someone else’s farm, he inspires and encourages them to look through greener eyes. His epitaph will be ‘Crofter and Conservationist’.
Kathryn Bradley-hole, Country Life Gardens Editor
It’s wondrous that Gerald Durrell has been brought into the consciousness of new generations through television dramas. Like Sir Edwin Lutyens and Dame Miriam Rothschild, he was intermittently schooled at home, but his intellectual curiosity fired a passion for natural history that impacted on the world stage. His entertaining autobiographies were often underpinned by a serious message and, through gifted communication and hard graft, he inspired generations to care about the fragility of everything, from gorillas to rainforests; his legacy is everywhere.
Dame Fiona Reynolds, author of The Fight for Beauty
We owe so much to the National Trust founder Octavia Hill. She campaigned for ‘open-air sitting rooms for the poor’, making the case for a green belt to contain urban sprawl, the need to provide parks as well as new housing and to create small green spaces close to where people live. She believed that everyone is entitled to experience beauty and she never rested until she had brought it—flowers, parks, art, architecture or design—into people’s lives.
Philip Merricks, Elmley National Nature Reserve
It was a huge privilege to give an address at Norman Moore’s memorial service in Ely Cathedral last year. The chief scientist of the former Nature Conservancy had the gift of making complex conservation issues appear simple to apply on the ground. He perhaps understood more than anyone the conservation of land use—‘no group of people can do more for wildlife than farmers’ was a favourite quote. Norman’s inspiring book, The Bird of Time (a quote from The Rubayyat of
Omar Khayyam), ends by urging everyone not to waste the moment.
The ornithologist and artist Sir Peter Scott (1909–89) left an enduring legacy and has inspired subsequent generations
The inspirational botanist and TV figure David Bellamy, now 84, is unafraid of controversy
Every year, some 7,000 children visit author Sir John Lister-kaye’s Aigas Field Centre
The inimitable Dame Miriam Rothschild (1908–2005) was a world authority on fleas
American scientist Rachel Carson (1907– 64) wasn’t afraid of the inconvenient truth
Otterly besotted: Scottish naturalist Gavin Maxwell (1914–69) and friend—his writing was magical, but his legacy has since been questioned by others (Book reviews, page 92)
‘Crofter and Conservationist’: Chris Swift, an unsung hero of the natural world
American ecologist Aldo Leopold (1887– 1948), whose mantra was that Man has a responsibility to manage wildlife
Gerald Durrell (1925–95), who often used humour to make serious points