WHO’S WHO IN CONSERVATION

AS soon as you start reading about conservation, or listening to other people, you find yourself brought up short by a confusing array of initials. The R.S.P.B., the S.P.N.R., B.B.O.N.T., S.S.S.I. – these are only a few of them. Behind these initials stands a complicated network of organizations and societies playing a great part in protecting nature in Britain, and many of them have a great deal to offer to the young naturalist.

THE NATURE CONSERVANCY

Starting with Government agencies, and trying to avoid initials, the body chiefly responsible for nature conservation in Britain is the Nature Conservancy. The Conservancy’s headquarters are in London, and it has regional offices covering England, Scotland, and Wales, plus a number of research stations. It co-operates with many other organizations, both in Britain and in Europe, to promote the cause of conservation, but its most important function is to carry out research into the various problems of conservation (to be able to advise the Government on what should be done) and to manage the national nature reserves which have been set up. Much of the research work is highly specialized, undertaken by teams of scientific workers, but in some of it the co-operation of naturalists is very welcome. An example 15 the work of the Biological Records Centre, which coordinates the survey work of individuals and societies throughout the country, to make complete and continuous records of what forms of life exist in Britain, where they are, their numbers, and the changes occurring in our countryside. Another example on a smaller scale is the Hedgerow Survey, part of an extraordinarily interesting inquiry into the value of hedges for wild life and the possible results of their removal in large areas of the country. The organizers of the survey need much more detailed and complete information about hedges all over the country, and have issued a form of record to be filled up with information on how to do it.

NATURE RESERVES

The nature reserves managed by the Conservancy – now about 130 in number – have been described as living museums and outdoor laboratories, because of the important research work done there. The reserves are not chosen at random, nor are they simply places where rare plants or animals may be found. In the main, they are representative ‘ecosystems’. Plants and animals do not occur in certain places by accident. They form part of characteristic associations, largely dependent on the underlying soil conditions. For instance, the Monks Wood National Nature Reserve, which is adjacent to one of the larger research stations of the Conservancy, is partly composed of oak and ash forest, with its accompanying flora and fauna. It is a surviving fragment of the great forests which used to cover the heavy clay plateau of Huntingdonshire. As such, it is the best remaining example of this kind of woodland, and supports an extremely interesting insect population. Another reserve, Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe, in Lincolnshire, is quite different, covering sand dunes, saltings, and freshwater marshes, each with typical plants and extremely interesting birds. The freshwater marsh includes such plants as sea rush, pond sedge, great water dock, and fen rush; smaller plants such as pennywort, marsh bed-straw, marsh arrow-grass, and skull-cap; and less common species such as bog pimpernel, water parsnip, brooklime, lesser water plantain and two different kinds of marsh orchid. It is also noteworthy as being the only Lincolnshire home of the natterjack toad. A third nature reserve which is different again is Widdybank Fell, in Upper Teesdale, where the underlying rock structure of shale, limestone, sandstone, and whin sill -described as a sandwich cake of rock – has produced a fascinatingly wide range of habitats, each with its quota of typical and often very localized plants. You might go to Monks Wood to listen to the nightingale; to Saltfleetby to see the shelduck; and on Widdybank Fell you would hear the curlew.

Because the reserves are primarily for research and conservation, they are not generally open to the public, and strict conditions have to be observed – no picking of flowers, no collecting, except under supervision. They are places where nature has to be protected and guarded. The Guide at Widdybank Fell includes a cry from the heart – ‘Please take nothing but photographs!’ But in most of the reserves visits can be arranged, and in some of them nature trails have been planned to pinpoint the features of interest. At Holme Fen, in East Anglia, to give just one example, a trail of this kind has been laid out, and a printed guide is available. This reserve is on the deep black soil of the fen peat, and survives to show what the primeval fenland looked like. In addition to the national nature reserves, the Nature Conservancy also picks out sites of special scientific interest (S.S.S.I.s) which it notifies to the local planning authority, so that the needs of these areas can be borne in mind when development is contemplated.

THE FORESTRY COMMISSION AND THE COUNTRYSIDE COMMISSION

A second Government agency, very different from the Nature Conservancy but one of great importance in our countryside, is the Forestry Commission. Started originally as a commercial proposition to produce timber as part of the national economy, the Commission now holds nearly three million acres of land, two thirds of which are covered with forests and trees, and it has made much of this area available for public access and recreation. There are more than 140 car parks, forest trails, forest walks, information centres and camping sites. Probably the best known is the New Forest, in Hampshire, with its wild ponies, and deer, and its forest trail. Another well-known one is Thetford Chase, in

Norfolk, a vast expanse of pinewoods. Others range from historic forest such as Rockingham, in Northamptonshire, part of an old Crown Forest, and Saver-nake, in Wiltshire, also part of a historic forest, to areas of new mixed planting. Conservation and the preservation of wild life are much more part of the Commission’s present policy than formerly, but are not its primary purpose. This is true also of a third Government agency, the Countryside Commission. This is responsible for national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. The Commission does not own these areas, but development in them including changes of land use is more strictly controlled than elsewhere, and the Commission maintains Information Centres to explain what facilities exist for walkers, campers, climbers and picnickers. It is also helping to organize the longdistance footpaths and bridleways such as the Pennine Way, a walk of 250 miles along the backbone of England. Beyond these three agencies, the Nature Conservancy with its prime responsibility for conservation, the Forestry Commission, and the Countryside Commission, there is now a Minister of the Environment, with overriding responsibilities for the whole of our environment, and a research unit to advise on all problems, and there is also a standing Royal Commission on Pollution.

THE NATIONAL TRUST

These Government agencies are official bodies of enormous importance for the future of our countryside. In the main, they provide opportunities for us, doing the work on our behalf. But they are backed up by a whole range of voluntary societies started by individual interested people for different purposes. The British are a nation of joiners – when they see a need, they form a society to meet that need, and they run such societies for themselves. One of the best known of these is the National Trust. This was started by private individuals in 1895, to preserve for ever land and buildings of beauty or historic interest. Today it owns some of the most important houses and villages in Britain, as well as 300,000 acres of our finest open country, including moorland, fens, woodland, nature reserves of its own, and more than a third of our most beautiful remaining unspoilt coastline. An example of outstanding importance for the naturalist is the Fame Islands, about 30 islands off the Northumberland coast used as a breeding place by grey seals and many sea birds – eider-duck, guillemot, puffin, fulmar, and others. In the Lake District the Trust owns more than 70,000 acres of fell and farmland, including much of the finest lake and mountain scenery. For a yearly subscription you can join the Trust, and this gives you free entry to about 200 properties, and many other privileges. Young people over 16 can join Acorn Camps, working holiday camps where you can spend a week or two giving physical help to the Trust – clearing scrub, making paths, restoring parts of buildings. Details from the Trust, at the address below.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

Quite different again, but also offering opportunities for young people, is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, founded as long ago as 1889. This is the R.S.P.B., perhaps the most famous initials of all. It really needs a whole book to itself. Again it is an entirely self-supporting organization, run on subscription, and its function is to protect wild birds, to spread knowledge and love of birds, to maintain its own bird reserves (29 of them) and to encourage interest and research. The fact that most of our wild birds are protected by law is due to the Society’s propaganda. It also runs the Young Ornithologists’ Club, for people up to the age of 18, to give them opportunities for education and field work. Write to them for information and advice on holiday courses, field outings, projects, competitions, and copies of its quarterly publication Bird Life, and its Newsletter. A very small subscription is payable. The British Trust for Ornithology lays special emphasis on study and work in the field, and the Wildfowl Trust has two remarkable collections of wildfowl, at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire and Peakirk near Peterborough.

THE COUNTY NATURALISTS’ TRUSTS

Perhaps the most remarkable development of recent years in the whole history of conservation has been the growth of the various County Naturalists’ Trusts. In many ways it is a pity they haven’t a more distinctive name, because people tend to confuse them with some of the other bodies working in the same cause, and don’t realize just how important and astonishing their achievements have been, and continue to be. The original energizing force behind them was a Society known as the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (the S.P.N.R. – initials well known and revered by conservationists, because the Society has had a tremendous influence since 1912, when it was formed). As one result of its inspiration, the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust was set up in 1926, as a charitable trust to acquire nature reserves in Norfolk. It was not until 1946 that a second County Trust was formed, this time in Yorkshire, but the movement soon gained enormous impetus, so that by 1970 there were 39 trusts covering the whole of England, Wales and Scodand, with over 40,000 members managing more than 400 reserves, and this is by no means the end of the story. Each trust is a separate concern, run by committees of its own members, and raising money by private subscription.

The work of the County Trusts is far too various to be .summarized. Wherever you live, you can join one of them, for a subscription, and some of them are very active indeed, with meetings, lectures, field expeditions, and opportunities for active work such as digging ditches, clearing scrub, building banks, and acting as wardens on reserves. Some of them have junior branches, mostly for people of the teenage group. Their really important work is the acquiring and management of local nature reserves. It was a local schoolboy who inspired the creation of a nature reserve at Old Slade, in the busy Colne Valley about five miles from Slough. He saw the possibilities of wet pits formed by large-scale gravel extraction. The result today is a most interesting reserve, an oasis of protected wild life in a very busy area. Over 200 plants and 100 birds have been recorded, many of them uncommon, and the reserve is used by many natural history societies for interesting work. The reserve is one of the many managed by B.B.O.N.T., odd but intriguing initials standing for the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Naturalists’ Trust. This is a very active Trust indeed and the record of its first ten years, published in 1970, which was European Conservation Year, is an absolutely remarkable story of ambition and achievement.

OTHER ORGANIZATIONS

The number of organizations active in the field of natural history and conservation has grown so large that in 1958 a representative body of many of them was set up as the Council for Nature. Four hundred and fifty societies and trusts are members, and its monthly newsletter, Habitat, is widely read. For our present purpose, its most important function was to organize volunteer groups of young people for conservation work on nature reserves and on ‘Operation Habitat Rescue’. A report of its first ten years work is available. Individuals and groups of young people usually between the ages of 17 and 21 have been organized to undertake the most various tasks. In Kent, at Hothfield. Common, a causeway 200 feet long made of railway sleepers was laid across an entomologically interesting bog; in Wales a dam was repaired, using underwater equipment, to protect a lagoon notable as a wildfowl refuge; and in many, many places rides have been cleared, ponds dug out, fences mended, derelict army equipment removed, undergrowth cut back, and nature trails constructed. The Conservation Corps is now organized by the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, Ltd. All details from them.

As a service for schools and colleges, rather than for individuals, a series of field studies centres is run by the Field Studies Council, and a number of hostels have been specially equipped for ficldwork facilities by the Youth Hostels Association. Both of these are for residential courses.

For those whose interests are not quite so active, the British Tourist Authority issues annually a leaflet giving information about two hundred and thirty-two nature trails all over the country, listing them on a county basis. The idea of nature trails started in America. Basically a trail is a signposted walk specially planned to show the visitor all the features of interest in a particular reserve or other area, and many of them have explanatory leaflets giving extra information. During National Nature Week in 1963 about 50 trails were laid, but they have become so popular that their numbers are growing every year. All the bodies mentioned have helped to start them, plus a number of others, especially Shell, the large commercial organization which also produced a gazetteer of natural history in Britain. Anyone could organize a wonderful holiday, walking these trails and making a photographic record.

Finally, mention may be made of the many zoos and wild life parks springing up in the country. These vary very much. Generally but not always their interest lies in exotic species, but there are some very fine collections. Some are run by public authorities, others by private individuals, often commercially. The London Zoo has a Young Zoologists Club, with four thousand members in the country between 9 and 18, and similar groups may be organized by other zoos on a local basis.

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