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Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves

In May 1912, Charles Rothschild held a meeting to discuss his radical idea about preserving natural wildlife habitats. His aim was to organise “persons interested in the preservation of the natural fauna and flora of the United Kingdom.” [The Humble Petition,” 1916, Charters: Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, HO 45/10824/320701, The National Archives, Kew, UK.]

This meeting led to the formation of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR), which would become the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, and signalled the beginning of a UK nature conservation movement that continues today. 

The Times, 18 December 1912 reported on the formation of the Society: "Nature Reserves: formation of a new society. In his recent address to the Zoological Section of the British Association at Dundee, Dr. Chalmers Mitchell made a strong appeal for the organized preservation of the world's fauna.. "It is only by the deliberate - and conscious interference of man," he said, "that the evil wrought by man has been arrested ": and again, "Each generation is the guardian of the existing resources of' he world; it has come into a great inheritance, but only as a trustee" - a trustee, that is to say, for generations that are to be. That the larger wild creatures are steadily disappearing from the face of the earth with the advance of civilization needs little demonstration. But coincidently with the wholesale extermination of mammals there is in progress a no less disastrous process of destruction among the lesser creatures - birds, fishes,reptiles, insects, and plants - also of geological, remains, and in almost every case this is the result of "the deliberate and conscious interference of man." To arrest this destructive tendency serious consideration is being given to the subject in many countries... elsewhere the duty of maintaining particular phases of human life and of preserving natural objects is recognized and performed by the commnunity as a whole, acting through the State; but in the United Kingdom it has been left to private enterprise and private munificence to establish and finance such refuges and nature reserves as we actually possess. Something has been attempted, it is true, to check the wanton destruction of animal life, by various Acts of Parliament, the arrangement of "close" seasons, sanctuaries, &c.  and in the National Trust we have a body equipped with the necessary authority to take over and safeguard such gifts of land as may be made by public enterprise or private liberality. Much has already been accomplished in this direction by certain societies and individuals; but all students and lovers of nature generally are now invited to combine in support of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves..."

This society, which met by permission of the Trustees of the British Museum at the Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London, S.W. was formed with the objects:

1. To collect and collate information as to areas of land in the United Kingdom which retain their primitive conditions and contain rare and local species liable to extinction owing to building, drainage, and disafforestation, or in consequence of the cupidity of collectors. All such information to be treated as strictly confidential.

2. To prepare a scheme showing which areas should be secured.

3. To obtain these areas and hand them over to the National Trust under such conditions as may be necessary.

4. To preserve for posterity as a national possession some part at least of our native land, its fauna, flora, and geological features.

5. To encourage the love of Nature, and to educate public opinion to a better knowledge of the value of Nature study.

The society exacted no subscription; members were formally elected by invitation of the Executive Committee (marked with * below). The control of the society's affairs was in the hands of a representative council consisting (in 1912) of:

President, the Right Hon. J. W. Lowther, M.P., Dr. L. Bayley Balfour, F.R.S., Sir E. H. Busk., Francis Darwin, F.R.S., Dr. F. D. Drewitt, *G. Claridge Druce, Professor J. Bretland Fanner, F.B.S., L. Fletcher, F.R.S., the Right Hon. Sir Edward Grey, Bt., K.G., M.P., the Right Hon. L. V. Harcourt, M.P. Sir Robert Hunter, K.C.B., Lord Lucas, *E. G. B; Meade-Waldo, *the Hon. E. S. Montagu, M.P., the Earl of Plymouth, C.B., Professor E. B. Poulton, F.B.S.. Sir David Prain, F.R.S., *the Hon. N. C. Rothschild, W. H. St. Quintin, Dr. R. F. Sebarff, W. M. Webb. Ex Officio: Hon. Treasurer, *C. E. Fragan, I.S.O. Hon. Secretaries, I R. Ogilvie-Grant and. tbe Hon. F. R. Henley.

The 'Rothschild Reserves' Survey

Under Charles' supervision, the SPNR conducted the first ever national survey of wildlife sites in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Questionnaires to landowners and local natural history societies seeking information about potential nature reserves were sent out from, (and returned to), the Rothschild bank at New Court in the City. The SPNR also despatched its members to carry out surveys on sites to establish their wildlife value.  The SPNR worked hard to secure Government protection for sites across the UK they considered ‘worthy of preservation’.

The society becomes The Wildlife Trusts

The SPNR became the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, and in the 1940s nature conservation made it onto the statute books with the National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act, 1949. There are now 47 Wildlife Trusts covering the whole of the UK, the Isle of Man and Alderney. For a comprehensive account of the development and history of the SPNR, see Wildlife in Trust, Tim Sands, (London: Elliot and Thompson Limited, 2013).

Woodwalton Fen

Woodwalton Fen is a 209 hectare biological Site of Special Scientific Interest west of Ramsey in Cambridgeshire. One of the first nature reserves to be created in England, Woodwalton Fen was bought by Charles Rothschild (1877-1923) in 1910. Charles intended to present the site to the National Trust, but they declined, and it was kept initially as a private nature reserve with a bungalow for the owner to stay in. In 1919, the Society acquired Woodwalton Fen as its first reserve. Woodwalton Fen is now a National Nature Reserve managed by English Nature. Today Woodwalton Fen has one of the few remaining ranges of flora characteristic of the East Anglian Fens. There are rare fen plants such as fen wood-rush and fen violet, and ditches have uncommon aquatic plants including bladderwort and water violet.

Archive sources

For a brief overview of the background to the creation of the SPNR see Changing conditions and conservation at Ashton Wold, the birthplace of the SPNR, Miriam Rothschild, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society (1987) 32, [copy available in the Reading Room].

A small cache of correspondence to Charles Rothschild concerning the Council of the Society for Promotion of Nature Reserves, 1912, will be found in the Ashton Wold Collection 000/1323/19/2.

The Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, The ‘Rothschild Reserves’ Archive, 1912-1915

000/2146, 7 boxes, 5 CD-Roms, 2 items

Original survey papers of the survey conducted between 1912-1915 by The Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR), and sundry correspondence. This accession primarily contains the original survey reports that were returned in the survey of 1912-1915, and form the basis of what was to become ‘Rothschild’s List’. Charles co-ordinated the survey from the Rothschild bank premises at New Court, where he was a Partner. The list documentation was stored in Rothschild Bank blue envelopes – roughly one envelope for each of the 284 sites, and the envelopes remained in the Society (and later The Wildlife Trusts) offices for the next 100 years.

On the front of each envelope was written the reference number of the site in a circle, and the name of the location or location and details of the landowner. Along with a site questionnaire containing information on why the site was proposed as a potential nature reserve, the envelopes usually contain a map showing the area in question and, sometimes, correspondence with landowners, land agents and the individual proposing the site.

Note on the site reference numbers: most envelopes are identified with a unique sequential site reference number; this is usually a one, two or three digit number. Occasionally the sites are further referenced by the addition of an identifying letter, e.g. ‘No 59A’. For some sites, they have further been identified by a further sub-division using a lower-case letter reference e.g. ‘a, b, c, d’ etc. The names of places are as recorded on the original blue envelopes, and are in many cases the historic spellings used by the Society.

The collection also includes folders of sundry correspondence dating from 1912-1915, largely addressed to the Secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, filed alphabetically in Rothschild Bank blue envelopes. The letters concern offers of support for the work of the Society, often prompted by the correspondents having read press articles about the Society and its work. Other letters concern specific matters relating to the sites surveyed, and there is a cache of correspondence concerning administrative affairs of the Society, including correspondence with Charles Rothschild, and a list of members of the Society.

Included in this collection are CD-Rom disks containing digitised images of the papers available on The Wildlife Trusts website. Also transferred to the Archive is a tin trunk in which the survey papers are believed to have been kept in the vaults at New Court, before they were transferred to the custody of the Society, and  wooden filing cabinet, bearing paper labels of The British Museum (Natural History), in which it is believed the papers were filed when they were received at the Society’s offices at the British Museum, and in which they remained stored in a variety of locations, before being transferred to the Archive from the offices of The Wildlife Trusts. 

The 'Rothschild Reserves' Digital Archive: The survey returns and sundry correspondence were digitised by The Wildlife Trusts as part of The Wildlife Trusts Centenary celebrations in 2012, and may be consulted online on the website of The Wildlife Trusts »

311 records available