The banker who saved Britain

As the conservation movement marks a significant anniversary, David Randall looks at its pioneer, Charles Rothschild

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The Independent Online

A hundred years ago, in May 1912, a movement dedicated to preserving habitats for wildlife was started. It seemed to many a quite bizarre idea. After all, it was a largely pre-motor age: arterial roads and agribusiness were unknown, hedgerows remained ungrubbed, and housing estates unbuilt – and pinafored girls in search of wild flowers, boys looking for birds' nests, and rural deans out with their butterfly nets all readily found their respective quarry.

One man, however, knew the rot was setting in and was determined to stop it. He founded the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR), and the successors to this fanciful scheme – known to us as the Wildlife Trusts and their constituent county bodies – manage 2,300 nature reserves. Few who walk these woods, meadows, valleys and marshes know that, in many ways, they owe their salvation to that eccentric clan of amateur naturalists, the English branch of the Rothschild family, and Charles of that ilk, in particular.

The son of the first Baron Rothschild, he published his first scientific paper – "The Lepidoptera of Harrow" – while still at school. The butterflies were a welcome respite from his other role at school – being the target of frequent "Jew hunts", as privileged young bullies called them. By the time he'd established himself at the family bank (and travelled twice round the pre-aeroplane world by the age of 26), his interest in insects had become a sort of mania. He collected them himself, paid a small army of specialists to do likewise, and so began a collection of fleas that would, at more than 30,000 species, eventually be the largest in the world. He met his future wife (a Hungarian tennis champion) on an insect-hunting trip in Switzerland, and began managing his estate at Ashton Wold in Northamptonshire to encourage butterflies.

This was odd. Most wealthy men of the time thought of wildlife as something that you shot or ate, but Charles was part of those first stirrings of what we now think of as nature conservation. Campaigning women had started the two protest groups that became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and so saved the great crested grebe, a bird hunted to the edge of extinction because ladies like to wear its feathers in their hats.

Charles, however, saw that the real task was not merely to resuscitate declining individual species, but to preserve the habitats where entire ecologies lived. He bought Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire in 1899, and gave it to the new National Trust, but he was ploughing a lone furrow.

Thus it was, on 16 May 1912, that he met three scientific friends and formed the SPNR. Its first major project was to catalogue the country's most valuable sites for wildlife as a basis for future protection. Published in 1915, it named 284 places, including Amberley Wild Brooks in West Sussex, Askham Bog in Yorkshire and Miller's Dale, Derbyshire.

Progress was slow, and was dimmed further when, one day in October 1923, Charles – ever mentally fragile and suffering from encephalitis – slit his throat. He was 46. The torch passed to Herbert Smith, a gemologist who later proposed a system of national parks. In 1926, the Norfolk Naturalists' Trust was founded, the first of the county organisations that now cover, and help to preserve, Britain.

Yet the Rothschild connection was maintained through Walter, elder brother of Charles and perhaps the quirkiest of the family, who was on the society's board from 1924 and was its president from 1931. A zoologist by inclination and study, he worked in the bank until he was 40, when the family provided him with the money to establish a private zoo at Tring, Hertfordshire, in 1908. In time, his collection grew to include kangaroos, emus, thousands of stuffed animals, 300,000 bird skins, more than two million butterflies, 30,000 beetles, and 200,000 birds' eggs. Some of it was later sold to pay off a blackmailing mistress.

Zebras fascinated him (he trained four to pull his carriage for a ride to Buckingham Palace), and he adored giant tortoises, keeping 144 of them. There is a picture of him, top-hatted, sitting astride one and attempting to motion it forward by dangling in front of its nose a piece of lettuce on the end of a riding crop.

Walter died in 1937, but there was another naturalist Rothschild to carry on the good work: Miriam, daughter of Charles. This mother of six catalogued her father's flea collection, studied molluscs, joined the code-breakers of Bletchley Park, and fought hard during the war for Jewish refugees, housing 50 of them in her own home. At the end of the Second World War, she had the satisfaction of seeing her father's 1915 list of valuable wildlife sites used as the basis for Britain's inaugural official nature reserves, and then, one by one, the County Naturalists' Trusts. Yorkshire (1946) and Lincolnshire (1948) joined Norfolk, and in the Fifties and Sixties they came thick and fast: Kent (1958), Berks, Bucks & Oxon and Essex (1959), Dorset (1961), and Cheshire (1962). There are now 47 trusts, with 800,000 members.

Miriam, meanwhile, went on in her own magnificent way. She used to send out Christmas cards bearing what seemed to be an abstract painting but was, in fact, the magnified photograph of a butterfly's penis. Her study of fleas went on, and she kept them in cellophane bags in her bedroom "so I can see what they are doing and so children do not annoy them". She campaigned for homosexual law reform, seat belts, free school milk, the treatment of people with schizophrenia, and butterfly conservation. She also did much to encourage the planting of wild flowers, devoting 150 acres to developing a wild flower seed nursery. One of the mixes she sold was called "Farmers' Nightmare".

There is something very British about the groups of nature lovers who have come together in their counties to save our habitats. And something very British, too, given our history of being invigorated by incomers, that it was the descendants of a Jewish émigré from Frankfurt who inspired them. As Miriam said: "People really do benefit from contact with plants, animals, birds and butterflies. Without them, we are a deprived species."