No doubt about the best assignment of the year. It came when that excellent organisation, the Wildlife Trusts asked me to write about something called the Rothschild List. I’d only vaguely heard about this before. I was pleased to take the job on: but I had no idea at all what it was going to mean to me.
In 1916, Charles Rothschild, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, helped to put together a list of 284 sites that were “worthy of preservation”. I went to see what had become of them. And by implication, what has happened to our countryside in a century of nature conservation.
My travels gave me an intense affinity with this man before his time, a man who loved the wild world with a profound passion, and who suffered from depression and took his own life at the age of 43. I wished I could have shown him some of the places on the list.
Kynance Cove in Cornwall: still full of strange plants and overflown by ravens performing the corkscrew dance. Kenfig in Wales, where I got lost among the dunes despite the looming presence of the massive steelworks. Orford Ness, where they tested atom bombs, and where I found myself unexpectedly moved by the shingle flora: so much life in so absurdly difficult a place to live.
Harlestone Heath, of which almost nothing is left, and then Hartslock Wood, of which a magnificent fragment still remains – and it’s now full of red kites, birds Rothschild would never have seen in England, showing that some things have actually improved.
I travelled out to Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth on a tourist boat full of children and dogs and shared with them the thousands of gannets flying all around us like angels, and sharing also the love for the wild world that unites us all.
And I had a Waitrose picnic at Rothschild’s table in Rothschild’s cottage in Woodwalton Fen, a place he bought himself to keep it safe… never knowing that a century later it would lie at the heart of the Great Fen Project, a glorious dream of landscape-scale conservation that’s now in full swing.
With each of these places I understood more about conservation and the way it operates across great expanses of time. I also understood that our thinking about landscape changes but our need for the wild world is constant. It took a visionary to realise that in 1916, when such things could be taken for granted.
But now we understand our need for wilderness better: for it’s something that has come from loss. Love and loss: those two matters were at the heart of the ebook I put together. I was sad for all the things we have lost, grateful for all that has been saved — and thrilled beyond measure by the few things that were better, truer, deeper and wilder than they had been before.
On this pilgrimage, I knew hope and sadness as my travelling companions and learned to live with them both. Hope comes from great conservationists, starting with the pioneers like Rothschild, and it continues with the thousands who work in and support conservation today.
But much more than that. As all conservationists know, and as Rothschild would be among the first to realise as well as to say, the real hope lies beyond all of us humans, however heroic. The real hope, the real joy, the real love comes from the wild world itself: from the jay in the ruins of Harlestone, the kites of Hartslock, the butterflies of Kenfig, the great white egret of Orford, the funky heather of Kynance, the gannets of Bass Rock, and for the marsh harrier that flew over Woodwalton Fen and carried on over Rothschild’s cottage, with me inside wishing I could show it to him.
That’s a thing about assignments. Especially the wild ones. Sometimes you get more than you bargained for.
There’s a link to both from the homepage of the Trusts www.wildlifetrusts.org