This month, the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts (RSWT) celebrates 100 years of quietly effective, locally based nature conservation, and, its vice-president, Sir David Attenborough, observes, it is in ‘good heart’. This is just as well, he quickly adds, ‘because the dangers are greater than ever’. A century ago, there was no official governmental recognition of nature conservation at all, and we owe its prominence now to the foresight of the banker Sir Charles Rothschild, who, in 1912, formed the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR) out of which the RSWT was born.

Sir Charles was also an expert entomologist who had discovered the plague-vector flea in Egypt and been round the world twice by the age of 26. Closer to home, he watched with dismay as the marshes and fens of eastern England were drained and ploughed for agriculture. He rescued more than 300 ‘primitive’ acres of Woodwalton Fen in Huntingdonshire in 1910, which would become the society’s first major nature reserve in 1919. Sir Charles grasped that concerns with saving individual threatened species were inadequate. Rather, he recognised that the key lay in saving habitats, thus heralding, in the view of the RSWT’s former president Aubrey Manning, ‘the beginning of nature conservation as we know it today’. It drew the approval of COUNTRY LIFE. ‘We are, indeed, far away from the age which regarded the botanist and his vasculum and the entomologist with his net as little better than lunatics,’ noted an article in 1913.

Sir Charles made a systematic record of wildlife sites across Britain that were worthy of preservation- the first comprehensive survey of our wild places. The list ran to 284 sites, from ancient woodland and Caledonian pine forest, to lowland heath and marshes, and formed the basis for the first statutory nature reserves established after the Second World War.

At the same time, a grassroots movement was germinating. However, although the first county wildlife trust, Norfolk, was formed in 1926, these didn’t start to multiply until the 1950s, under the encouraging eye of Ted Smith, the son of a Lincolnshire plumber and still an active figure today in his nineties. The emphasis, he says, was on involving local people and retaining independence for county trusts, but the need for funding and a national voice led to the SPNR becoming the trusts’ eventual coordinator.

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The idea of being a fixture in local communities has been the key to the charity’s effectiveness, argues chief executive Stephanie Hilborne. ‘Each trust was formed by, and remains driven by, people who care passionately about the wildlife of their own area. By having such a local presence, it’s possible to reach millions of people… face to face.’ She admits: ‘Our style isn’t combative and we aren’t always high-profile in the media.’ Instead, she maintains that the trusts are at the coalface for the wider conservation movement-last year, they gauged the impact on wildlife of 70,000 planning applications.

There has also been notable campaigning success. In 1978, the Sussex branch stopped the draining of Amberley Wildbrooks, one of Britain’s most important remaining wetlands. In 1980, the Avon branch created our first urban nature reserve in Bristol, and in 2008, the Devon branch got legal protection for the reefs at Lyme Bay. The RSWT was instrumental in the passing of the Marine and Coastal Access Act in 2009 and has been critical in the return of the otter.

Some of the original ‘Rothschild Reserves’ are still in RSWT ownership, including Aldbury Nowers, with the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, where our smallest resident butterfly, the small blue, recently returned, and Hickling Broad (Norfolk) where a restoration project is under way. The threats to Nature may be greater than ever, but without the vision of one man a century ago, they would be even worse.