Charles Rothschild: The banker who changed the world for good

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A century ago one of the richest men of his day had a bold idea: to save species, we must save their homes. Michael McCarthy enjoys the results

A A A

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense; but the understanding took a long time coming. You can't preserve wild things unless you preserve their homes. If you take a butterfly like the sparklingly brilliant Adonis blue, for example, you have to have chalk or limestone grassland for it to survive, for that is where you will find its food plant, horseshoe vetch; if you take a bird like the Dartford warbler, you need a big patch of lowland heath, for it has learnt to specialise in catching the insects of heathland.

It's true that a few creatures are generalists, and can survive almost anywhere, but most have found their niche in specific biological circumstances, or habitats, as we now say; and without the habitat, you don't get the species, and that is a cast-iron rule. In fact, the leading cause of wildlife loss across the globe is habitat destruction; orang-utans are disappearing from much of their homeland in Indonesia not because they are being shot in great numbers, as they were in the 19th century, but because the rainforests where they live are being cut down and turned into oil-palm plantations.

It seems such a simple insight, in a way, but for centuries, nobody saw it, and even early conservationists didn't get the connection; the women who founded the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the 1890s just wanted to stop wild birds such as great crested grebes being killed for their feathers (used in women's hats), and to stop birds' eggs being collected; habitats were a closed book to them. It wasn't until 100 years ago next week, on 16 May 1912, that the idea that you needed to save places, if you wanted to save species, was suddenly brought into focus, by a remarkable man.

He was Charles Rothschild, a scion of what was then the richest family in the world. In the 19th century the Rothschild banking dynasty had achieved financial pre-eminence right across Europe. Charles's father Nathaniel, the first Lord Rothschild, was head of the English branch but his two sons, although they both followed him into the bank, were far more interested in natural history.

Walter Rothschild, the elder boy and subsequently the second Lord Rothschild, pursued an astonishing career of collecting natural history specimens. In his private museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, he amassed more than two million pinned butterflies and 30,000 beetles, as well as 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds' eggs and thousands of other specimens of fishes, reptiles and mammals from all over the world. You can still see many of them at the museum today (although not the stuffed birds).

Charles, his younger brother, was more solid in his achievements – he was a success in the bank, which Walter was forced to leave – but he was no less passionate about nature, especially entomology. Insects were his passion (he dreamed of becoming a professional entomologist) and he wrote his first scientific paper, on moths and butterflies, while still at school, but his real speciality was fleas: he became the world's leading expert and assembled a collection of more than a million (now in the British museum) as well as building formidable collections of butterflies and moths, and an expert knowledge of wild flowers.

Sometime in the early years of the 20th century, Charles Rothschild began to understand that the actual wildlife-rich places in the English countryside where he collected many of his specimens – what he termed his "good spots" – needed to be preserved. He had already begun to see the value of safeguarding sites, having bought Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, one of the last surviving examples of unspoiled fenland landscape, in 1899 (at the age of 22) and presented it to the National Trust: it was Britain's first nature reserve.

In 1910 he went further and bought another wild fenland remnant, Woodwalton Fen, as his personal reserve; he built a cottage on stilts in the heart of the fen as a base for his collecting expeditions, including moth trapping at night.

Eventually, it dawned on him – the first time that it had dawned on anybody – that there could be a whole network of such protected sites across the country, and in May 1912 he convened a meeting at the British Museum of like-minded enthusiasts, all of them highly influential, which led to the formation of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR).

The idea was that the society would identify places which needed protection, and encourage landowners and others to carry it out; and by 1915 a list of 284 proposed nature reserves in the UK had been compiled – moors and meadows, downs and commons, woods and fens – with 182 of them in England.

This list, "Rothschild's reserves" as it is sometimes known, represents the beginnings of organised nature conservation in Britain. What it has become, greatly expanded a century later, is essentially the vast network of 2,300 reserves run by the UK's 47 county wildlife trusts, since the SPNR, after a long hiatus caused by the two world wars and Charles Rothschild's early death, eventually morphed into the Wildlife Trusts Partnership. What we have now is a substantial list of individual sites where species are protected, from the swallowtail butterfly of Hickling Broad, guarded by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, to the pine martens of Ben Mor Coigach, the mountain landscape in north-west Scotland which the Scottish Wildlife Trust watches over.

The range is massive: the islands of Skomer and Skokholm, managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, look after the largest concentrations of Manx shearwaters in the world, whereas at Upton Heath in Dorset, the Dorset Wildlife Trust is preserving the rare smooth snake. Not far away, the Hampshire Wildlife Trust keeps the endangered musk orchid safe at Noar Hill near Selborne, while in the North, the Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside is busy looking after uncommon natterjack toads on Ainsdale Dunes, between Liverpool and Southport.

The understanding of the habitat-species dependency is at the heart of all this, but now the trusts have a new vision for the future: conservation at the landscape scale.

Increasingly over recent decades, while special habitats for endangered creatures have been successfully saved, the wider countryside outside these protected areas has greatly suffered, not least from intensive farming, and natural habitats have been lost on an unprecedented scale.

Now in its Living Landscape programme, the Wildlife Trusts want to restore wildlife-richness to much wider areas, such as whole-river catchments, or tracts of upland. The idea is to recreate damaged habitats and link them through natural landscape corridors, not least because some species may need to migrate because of climate change; and further, to link restored areas to the green spaces and towns and cities, so that you can step outside your door, and wildlife is all around you.

More than 100 Living Landscape schemes are under way now across the whole of the UK, from Shakespeare's Forest of Arden, to the Itchen Valley in Hampshire. It is an inspiring step from Charles Rothschild's original insight that you have to preserve the homes of things; and the insect-mad banker would undoubtedly have approved.

Rare delights protecting Britain's natural wonders

Swallowtail butterfly, Hickling Broad, Norfolk

This extremely rare butterfly occurs in reed and sedge beds found within the Norfolk Broads, in areas protected by Norfolk Wildlife Trust, such as Hickling Broad. It has become increasingly rare because the British race of the butterfly feeds only on a single uncommon plant, milk parsley.

Manx Shearwater, Skomer and Skokholm, Wales

There are an estimated 120,000 breeding pairs of Manx shearwaters on Skomer and a further 45,000 pairs on Skokholm, off the coast of Pembrokeshire, making the two islands – both of which are managed by The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales – the largest known concentration of this species in the world.

Smooth snake, Upton Heath, Dorset

Dorset Wildlife Trust has been working hard on Upton Heath, near Poole, to improve the heathland habitat for one of Britain's rarest reptiles, the smooth snake. It is only found in a small area of south-central England, centred in Hampshire and Dorset. (Upton Heath in fact holds all six British reptile species, three snakes and three lizards).

Natterjack toad, Ainsdale, Merseyside

The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside is involved in the management of sites along the Sefton Coast, north of Liverpool, where sand dunes are home to natterjack toads. The toads spawn in shallow dune pools which heat up quickly, meaning they hatch quickly compared with the rival common toad. The Trust is involved in ensuring areas of the dunes are not vegetated, making it easier for the natterjacks.

Musk orchid, Noar Hill, Hampshire

Noar Hill is a chalk grassland managed by Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, well known for its wide range of orchid species, including the rare musk orchid. Noar Hill lies just above the Hampshire village of Selborne, as featured in the famous work by the naturalist Gilbert White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, published in 1789.

Pine marten, Ben Mor Coigach, Western Highlands

Following historical persecution, populations in Scotland of what many people consider our most charismatic mammal, the pine marten, are generally healthy and can be found in such places as the Ben Mor Coigach reserve, managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

Sport
Brendan Rodgers is confident that Sterling will put pen to paper on a new deal at Anfield
footballLIVE: Follow all the latest from tonight's Capital One semi-finals
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Life and Style
tech
News
Not quite what they were expecting
news

When teaching the meaning of Christmas backfires

Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal at the Golden Globes in 2011
film
Life and Style
Thorsten Heins, and Alicia Keys (BlackBerry 10, 2013)
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

Rebranding Christmas

More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up
A Greek island - yours for the price of a London flat

A sun-kissed island - yours for the price of a London flat

Cash-strapped Greeks are selling off their slices of paradise
Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

New system means that evergreen songs could top the festive charts
Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence

Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys

He is a musician of wondrous oddity. He is on a perpetual quest to seek the lost tribes of the Welsh diaspora. Just don't ask Gruff Rhys if he's a national treasure...