Prophet and Loss: Charles Rothschild and the 284 special sites that kept Britain wild

Britain owes a lot to Charles Rothschild. Banker, entomologist, member of the Rothschild family, Charles is credited with establishing the UK’s first nature reserve—Wicken Fen, near Ely, in 1899—and for spearheading the nation’s fledging conservation movement over a century ago. Now, 100 years on, author Simon Barnes reveals the fascinating story of how we began to cherish our wild places in his new e-book, Prophet and Lossillustrated by wildlife artist Nik Pollard.

In a moving and insightful story about shifting values, changes in perspective and new expectations, Barnes re-visits seven of 284 special places which Charles Rothschild and his colleagues deemed ‘worthy of preservation’, to see how they have fared, revealing a fascinating story about time, our relationship with the natural world and how we can best protect it. We caught up with the author at large to ask him about his work.

Hi Simon. Nice to speak with you. First off, who was Charles Rothschild?

Rothschild was the second son of the first Baron Rothschild, born into power and money. He was mad about the wild world and no dilettante; his work on fleas is relevant to this day. Because he loved the wild he feared its loss: he was one of the first people to understand that nature is a fragile thing that needs to be protected if it is to survive. So he did something about it.

In total there were 284 special places that Rothschild and his colleagues deemed worthy of preservation a century ago; how did he work on compiling such a list?

It was a rather idiosyncratic business: Rothschild and his colleagues listed the sites that they believed mattered. Their bias was in favour of plants and insects, as befits the naturalists of the time.

You re-visit seven of these locations; how and why did you choose these sites over others?

I wanted to understand what 100 years had done to these sites, so I visited places that had been affected by time in different ways. I went to a couple of sites that were pretty much unchanged, a site that has been completely trashed, one or two that have been damaged by agriculture, another compromised by industry and one that  has become a mainstream tourist attraction. Some of these sites have visibly improved. One of them is at the heart of a revolution in thinking about conservation and in another 100 years will be part of 14 square miles of living landscape.

Please tell us a little bit more about your journey; what was a standout memory from it?

The stand-out memory was cumulative: a growing understanding of what wilderness has meant to people across a century of time, and looking forward to the next century in the certainty that for many people wilderness will still matter. I had unexpected moments of understanding with plant communities in sand dunes and among shingle, and a drastic revelation of bioabundance when I lost a path and stumbled—more or less literally—into a place that called up a dozen insects with every single footfall.

What criteria did Rothschild and his associates apply to deem a given location worthy of preservation.

It was an informal business: the various naturalists who were part of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves were entrusted to make their own decisions. Rare plants and insects were at the top of it, along with breeding birds. But all the sites that made the list had some degree of vulnerability: they were not only worthy of preservation, they were also in at least some danger of destruction. A fate that has befallen some of those sites.

Charles Rothschild with his butterfly net. Photo source: Great Fen website
Charles Rothschild with his butterfly net. Photo source: Great Fen website

Has our definition of ‘worthiness’ changed in the century since Rothschild first compiled the list?

There are some habitats like heathland that we value more than we used to. We tend to be better birders, thanks to better equipment, so we have a better idea of what birds are around and what they need to survive. And we have a greater idea of international responsibility. Our estuaries, for example, are valued very highly these days even though many of the birds that winter there actually do their breeding elsewhere. But the biggest change in the way of thinking is that we no longer live with the idea that destruction might just be a possibility. We live in the cast-iron certainty that destruction is happening now, every day, everywhere, all the time. We know that doing something about it is a matter of daily urgency.

You explain that many wonderful wild places of Britain have now gone; could you please elaborate on this and what the country has lost since Rothschild’s day?

The State of Nature Report of 2013 spells this out. It shows in hard figures the horrifying changes that have taken place over the last 50 years. It turned out that 60 per cent of all species across the entire range of creation had declined. Of these, 31 per cent had declined sharply. It is also clear—the figures don’t exist but the anecdotal evidence is utterly compelling—that the 50 years before the survey were also a time of decline. We have, quite literally, lost an immeasurable amount of life from our country.

The book’s title includes the word ‘prophet’ and you’ve described your own journey as a pilgrimage; would you say that our love for the natural world should viewed via an almost religious or spiritual dimension?

I’d tend to be a bit careful here. Religious imagery can help us to understand the experience, but the wild world is not a religion or even a substitute for one. It can be a cause, it can be a source of spiritual (if you like) nourishment, but it doesn’t provide an ethical template, a system of belief, a community, a set of leaders or framework for living. And moving into New Age stuff doesn’t move us on very further: for those who like that sort of thing that is the sort of thing they like.

There are certainly moments of exaltation in the wild world that have something in common with religious experiences. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote The Windhover about a kestrel and dedicated this great poem ‘To Christ our Lord’. For me the revelation of the marvellous nature of nature and of kestrels is quite enough to be going on with.

What do you think the future holds for the wild places of Britain?

The country is full of complex problems of space and growing demands of the population. It’s also full of awful and stupid people doing awful and stupid things. It’s easy to find despair when you’re in the mood.

But the country is also full of marvellous places and people who love them. And it’s full of wise and marvellous people doing wise and marvellous things to look after them. Things are mostly not as bad as I fear; they’re never, ever as good I hope.

What would you say is the overriding message of your book?

Do it. Get out there. Look. Listen. Love.

Is there anything else you’d like to add, or to say?

Join your Wildlife Trust. And remember that London’s got one too.

Thanks Simon.


Download Prophet and Loss for just £1 (a pdf is available on The Wildlife Trusts’ website for anyone without an e-reader), share your thoughts on twitter using #RothschildList, or visit a Rothschild Reserve and experience for yourself the wildness that Charles Rothschild and his colleagues sought to save.

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