Ted Smith: Pioneering conservationist who led the way in creating a national movement to protect the wildlife of Britain

Smith's friend David Attenborough described him as "a visionary, a diplomat, and above all a revolutionary"

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The Independent Online

During the years after the Second World War, a group of far-sighted men and women spearheaded the modern nature conservation movement, helping to save some of Britain's most threatened habitats and wild creatures. One of the last of these pioneers, Ted Smith, has died at the age of 95.

Today the Wildlife Trusts have more than 800,000 members, and over 2,000 nature reserves. Yet if it hadn't been for Ted Smith's dedication, foresight and hard work all this might never have come about.

Birds were Smith's first passion, and as a child he roamed the countryside around his Lincolnshire home for hours on end. His firm favourite was the lapwing, and when he, his wife Mary, and their two young daughters moved into their new home in spring 1957 they named it "Pyewipes", after the local name for this farmland bird.

By then he was already a leading conservationist, having founded the Lincolnshire Naturalists' Trust (now the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust) in 1948. He remained the Trust's President until his death, more than two-thirds of a century later.

His friend David Attenborough, who knew him for more than 50 years, described him as "a visionary, a diplomat, and above all a revolutionary", adding, "Without Ted, Britain's natural heritage would be immensely the poorer."

Smith came from humble beginnings. His grandfather was a blacksmith, and his parents worked long hours running a bakery and grocery shop – in 40 years they only took one holiday together.

He was born a decade after his sister, in August 1920, less than two years after the end of the First World War. By the time he reached adulthood, storm clouds were brewing once again. The Second World War had a profound effect on him, when his friend Peter Stocks, a gifted bird artist, was killed while serving in the RAF. Smith himself was deemed unfit for military service because of jaundice and a suspected heart condition. So he graduated from Leeds University with a First Class degree in English, and then trained as a teacher, working in Leeds and Norfolk.

He might have remained a schoolmaster had he not seen an advert for a job as an Adult Education Tutor back in his home county. Despite his lack of experience he was offered the post, and in January 1948 he returned to Lincolnshire.

There he found many changes – especially the loss of familiar landscapes and their wildlife. During the war, the need to be self-sufficient in food had meant that hay meadows were ploughed up and ancient hedgerows removed, to grow crops and feed livestock.

After the war ended it was widely assumed that things would return to normal, but they went from bad to worse. New chemical pesticides such as DDT were a godsend to farmers, enabling them to produce more and more cheap food for consumers. But this came at a terrible cost: birds, mammals and insects were poisoned in their millions. Meanwhile much of the countryside was being covered in concrete and tarmac to build more homes, factories and roads.

Ted and a handful of like-minded people began the fightback. Today, the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust boasts more than 25,000 members and an annual income of several million pounds; but when it began, back in 1948, it had 129 members and an income of £82.

That year he met his future wife Mary (née Goddard) on a trip to the Welsh island of Skokholm. He proposed a few weeks later, at Gibraltar Point on the Lincolnshire coast, and they married in 1949. Meanwhile, this important coastal beauty spot and wildlife habitat was threatened by a proposal to build more than 800 bungalows. Ted moved quickly, enlisting the support of Lincolnshire County Council to create Britain's very first local nature reserve.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Smith and his colleagues fought a rearguard battle to try to halt what he called the "juggernaut" of destruction. They often had to watch helplessly as one government department undid the work of another, allowing development on what were supposed to be protected sites. Thus in 1963 one haven for rare plants, Waddingham Heath, was ploughed up by a local farmer – encouraged by a government grant of £12 an acre, a tidy sum in those days.

Smith soon realised that the local trusts needed to join together to influence government policy at the highest level. So he began the process of creating a truly national movement for wildlife, eventually becoming General Secretary of the Wildlife Trusts from 1975-1979.

By then, he had a powerful ally – Britain's best-known wildlife broadcaster, David Attenborough. Smith remembered their catching a train together from King's Cross. "For some reason David had brought a box containing a grass snake, which was making a loud rustling noise. When the ticket collector came by we had to talk very loudly so he didn't discover the snake and throw us off!"

In 2012, Attenborough presented Smith with a surprise award to mark the centenary of the original Wildlife Trust movement: an exquisite sculpture of his favourite bird, the lapwing. He and Mary passed on their love of wildlife to their daughters Alison and Helen, both of whom became professional naturalists. His grandchildren, Alice and James, also became involved: in 2006, campaigning on environmental issues, 14-year-old Alice was elected MP for South Norfolk in the UK Youth Parliament.

Mary died in 2008; Ted Smith is survived by his daughters and grandchildren.

STEPHEN MOSS

Arthur Edward Smith, conservationist: born Lincolnshire 24 August 1920; CBE; married 1949 Mary Goddard (died 2008; two daughters); died September 13 2015.

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