‘Where birds and a wild Englishman roamed’: The world’s first nature reserve granted listed status

Waterton Park in West Yorkshire was the 'prototype for the modern nature reserve', and has been rewarded by Historic England with protection. Annie Elwes tells the story of the man behind it.

The world’s first nature reserve, Waterton Park in West Yorkshire, has been granted protection by Historic England with a Grade II listing. Upon inheriting the Walton Hall estate in 1805, naturalist and conservationist Charles Waterton (1782 – 1865) went against the attitudes of his peers by forbidding shooting on the land, banning fishing between late autumn and early May and barring keepers and dogs from entering during nesting season.

He planted trees, created habitats and allowed one end of the lake to become swamp-like for herons and waterfowl. Waterton even abstained from alcohol in order to save up to build a stone wall, more than 8ft tall and three miles long, to keep out foxes and poachers and safely contain both local and migratory bird species; it took five years.

He built towers for birdwatching (a pastime he also enjoyed at night from a hollowed-out tree); one winter, he counted 5,000 wildfowl. Various birds ‘may thank their lucky stars that they have my park wall to protect them,’ he wrote in 1849, as would members of the public, whom he invited into the park free of charge.

Charles Waterton, along with a bird and a cat, painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1824. Credit: National Gallery London, courtesy of Historic England

‘Charles Waterton was a true visionary who recognised both the value of protecting wildlife and the powerful link between Nature and our wellbeing,’ comments Sarah Charlesworth, listing team leader for Northern England. ‘With Waterton Park, he created a prototype for the modern nature reserve, where wildlife and humans can exist in harmony for their mutual benefit.’

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A Catholic whose ancestors fought at Crécy and Agincourt, Waterton, after spending time managing his father and uncle’s sugar plantation in Guyana, wrote that ‘slavery can never be defended’.

After his wife died, he vowed never to sleep on a bed again, preferring the floor, with a wooden plank for a pillow. It’s also rumoured that, when friends came for dinner, somewhat eccentrically, he was known to spend the entire evening mimicking a wild animal, climbing around on all fours and hanging from pieces of furniture.

A friend of Charles Darwin and a pioneering taxidermist, he wrote on birds and animals, including Wanderings in South America (1825), is credited with inventing the bird nesting box and, in the 1830s, won the earliest known court case against pollution (a soap works was polluting his lake).

Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada, now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is named after him. Waterton’s family house, Walton Hall, is now Waterton Park Hotel (www.watertonparkhotel.co.uk), which, with Waterton Park Golf Club, co-owns the nature reserve.

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