Charles Rothschild's Incredible Legacy on the Wildlife Trust's 100th Birthday

Some ideas are so self-evident they barely require explanation. One such concept is that of nature reserves. Most countries have them and today they cover more than 13% of the world's land area.

But 100 years ago things were different. There were very few nature reserves of any kind, and in the face of an onslaught unleashed by modern farming and industry natural areas rich in wildlife were disappearing fast. This was especially the case in industrialised countries such as Great Britain.

One person who decided to act to stem the decline was Charles Rothschild. A member of the famous banking family, his passion was for nature and on working out where the best places for wildlife remained, and then getting them protected.

On May 16th 1912, 100 years ago today, he set up the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR), an organisation committed to identifying and protecting the country's finest wildlife areas. The organisation's first reserve was at Woodwalton Fen in Cambridgeshire, where Rothschild had two years previously bought an area of wetland so it could be spared from drainage.

By 1915 Rothschild and his colleagues had prepared a list of 284 special wildlife sites around the British Isles considered worthy of permanent preservation. The list included the Farne Islands and the Norfolk Broads in England, Tregaron Bog in Wales, Caen Lochan Glen in Scotland, and Lough Neagh in Ireland. The idea of protecting these and other important places gathered momentum and spawned a new movement – the county wildlife trusts. The first one was in Norfolk. Founded in 1926, its initial purchase was of the threatened Cley Marshes.

During the 1940s, the momentum created by Rothschild and his colleagues led to a first major policy breakthrough. New laws were enacted to protect most of the places on his list. Buoyed up by this and other successes, the movement continued to grow. By the 1970s, county Wildlife Trusts were present throughout the UK with the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts working today as their national body. They have a collective membership of 800,000 people and manage 2,300 nature reserves. Some are tiny and of local importance, others like Woodwalton Fen are substantial and of international significance.

But what of the next 100 years? I believe there are two main challenges. The first is to restore large areas of natural habitat. If we are to secure wildlife in our islands for the long term then the fragments of natural habitat that survived twentieth century farming and development must be combined into larger areas of wild country. The Wildlife Trusts' Living Landscapes programme is, with others, including RSPB and the National Trust, doing this job. There has already been some success. One of the largest such restoration schemes is based on Rothschild's first SPNR reserve at Woodwalton Fen, where the Great Fen project is reclaiming large areas of drained land back to wild fen.

The second major challenge concerns the restoration of connections between people and nature. If we are to secure a more durable accommodation between people and the natural world then it will be vital for more of us to be more personally connected with nature. To this extent the trusts' reserves are not only a means whereby we might reconnect fragmented landscapes, they are also vital in connecting us to nature, so that we can better appreciate what it does for us and why we must sustain it.

The fact that many of our country's best natural areas still retain their landscapes, animals and plants is in large part down to the power of Charles Rothschild's vision, and the movement that he helped to found. Although he died in 1923 and never saw the results of what he put in motion, he left an incredible legacy. During the next 100 years the nature reserves he helped establish will be at the core of the work that must be done in restoring not only large areas of natural habitat, but also our cultural connections with nature.