Stephen Warburton

Guardian of the Yorkshire landscape
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The Independent Online

Stephen Westoby Warburton, conservationist: born Gainsborough, Lincolnshire 12 March 1950; died York 19 January 2004.

The survival of many of Yorkshire's best habitats and landscapes is largely thanks to Stephen Warburton, who was for 30 years the unwavering conscience behind the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, latterly under the title Conservation Manager.

Without Warburton's relentless tenacity and vision, which was belied by a beguilingly diffident charm, a whole range of national treasures from meadows, meres and woods to major systems of upland moorland and the great wetland of the Derwent Ings south of York would have vanished beneath intensive farming or urban development. His campaigns established legal and planning precedents which safeguard the natural world far beyond the specific places he was battling for.

I first met Stephen Warburton at King's School, Canterbury, when as teenagers we would escape the miseries of boarding school on our bikes to explore the Kent countryside. Our interest in wild orchids and old churches was regarded as distinctly eccentric by our contemporaries. We little realised how this embattled position was preparing us for a lifetime's debate with developers, engineers and land agents.

Born in 1950, Warburton came from a farming background in north Nottinghamshire by the Trent, and after King's, Canterbury, went to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he read Archaeology and Anthropology with English. He did a further degree in Ecology at Wye College and then spent a year in Northern Ireland with the Londonderry Development Commission.

The challenges facing nature conservation in 1973 when he joined the Yorkshire Naturalists' Trust (as it then was) as its only paid conservationist are unrecognisable today. Much internationally important habitat had no statutory protection. There was no Wildlife and Countryside Act and no such thing as Environmental Assessment. It was commonplace to stumble on places which are now Sites of Special Scientific Interest and, recognising their value for the first time, have days to save them from destruction armed with little more than cunning and persuasion.

In this crisis, which was also the high noon of agri-business, many conservationists were happier studying the species they loved than appealing to the political motives of the opposition. Warburton brought to this situation a talent for making the radical seem reasonable and lateral-thinking strategies which relied on the law, economics and local communities as a way of saving butterflies and birds.

Warburton's understanding of the law was demonstrated by the case of Preston-under-Scar. Here a flower-rich grassland was threatened by quarrying proposals which were resurrected in 1991 on the basis of permission granted four decades before. He was instrumental in the Wildlife Trust's insistence on an Environmental Assessment regardless of the previous planning history. Industry and government fought back but in 1999 the House of Lords upheld the trust's requirement, which was supported this month as a general principle by the European Court of Justice. Warburton was also closely involved in the application of early Enclosure Awards to prevent widespread hedgerow removal.

Economic arguments are now commonly used to discredit environmentally damaging activities. Here too Warburton was a pioneer. In 1981-83, notably in the case of Troutsdale Moor, he was able to demonstrate that ploughing up moorland to create poor grassland achieved negligible benefit in farming terms. As a result government grants for moorland ploughing ceased. Similar economic arguments were successfully deployed to prevent the draining and ploughing of part of the Derwent Ings with public money in 1984. This was a test case for the rest of the Ings, which as a result are now secure as an internationally protected reserve, a mile wide and 12 miles long, filled with floodwaters and clouds of wildfowl in winter followed by flowers and breeding waders in the spring.

Faced with the destruction of the great wetlands of Thorne Moors and Hatfield Chase through mining for horticultural peat, Warburton immediately grasped the need to appeal to the consumer. From 1988 gardeners were alerted to the environmental consequences of using peat through a nationwide education campaign. In 2002 after years of painfully won concessions from the peat producers the Government bought out the remaining mining rights at Thorne and Hatfield for an unprecedented £17m, thus securing these magnificent wildernesses for sundews, nightjars and public enjoyment.

Over the past decade Warburton came to realise that to win some battles against the Goliath of development he needed to enlist an even smaller David than the albeit valiant wildlife trust. Forming tiny well- networked trusts with only three trustees, he was able to act overnight to head off crises and take on causes in which no one else was interested. Just one result is a lake south of the Tees which attracts flocks of snipe and teal and reflects a medieval castle into the bargain. In 1999 this was a grass field. All it took was to turn off the pump, to the delight of the local farmer, who remains involved.

Most touchingly, with his partner Phil Thomas, Warburton rescued Ellerton Church in the heart of the Derwent Ings in 1996. In a typical Warburtonian manoeuvre where the worlds of Trollope and Peter Scott collide, he enlisted the support of the Archbishop of York's wife over tea to prevent its imminent demolition. Now the church is dedicated for use by the community who partook in its resurrection, complete with specially commissioned glass and an architecturally correct barn-owl box whence the bird glides out to hunt over the landscape which Warburton helped to save.

Jeremy Purseglove