From small beginnings
This year, Dorset Wildlife Trust celebrates its 50th anniversary. From very small beginnings in 1961 it has grown to become the largest nature conservation body in the county and has made notable progress in safeguarding Dorset’s wildlife and wild places. In March 1961 the Trust formed with just 306 founder members and within a few months acquired its first two nature reserves. Today DWT has 25,000 members (many of them readers of this magazine!) and manages over 40 sites, representing over 1300 hectares of the most important wildlife havens. Nicky Hoar, DWT’s Communications Officer, has been looking back through the archives of an amazing 50-year journey as the celebrations begin.
Back to the sixties
The sixties were another world in many ways. Nature conservation was a minority interest, considered a bit cranky and definitely in its infancy. The pioneers of what was to become Dorset Wildlife Trust were a brave, visionary and determined bunch who saw that if nothing was done, we could lose our natural heritage without anybody noticing until it was too late.
These were the days of freezing cold winters and brave new worlds of building and chemical farming, when heathland was ‘wasteland’ and Brownsea Island could become just another privately owned island plaything of the wealthy. Huge areas of heath and chalk downland had already been lost and it was time to act. Under the sponsorship of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, an independent committee of naturalists and prominent landowners was formed, with the Earl of Ilchester as its President, Professor Ronald Good as its Chairman and Miss Helen Brotherton as the Honorary Secretary. A notice was published proposing that a Dorset Naturalists’ Trust be set up and announcing an Inaugural Meeting in the Spring of 1961 in Dorchester, stating: “Those who genuinely desire to preserve the natural features of the County must take positive action to safeguard them”.
The call to protect Dorset’s natural heritage was taken up by 306 founder members, led by Helen Brotherton, a powerhouse of energy and supreme wildlife champion for Dorset. The Trust’s first nature reserve was acquired, at Holway Wood, north of Sherborne. It is no exaggeration to say that Helen Brotherton was simultaneously busy saving Brownsea Island. In that same year, when the National Trust had the opportunity to take on the island in the face of development threats, it was Helen Brotherton who persuaded the people of Poole to pledge money to secure the island's future, with the newly formed Dorset Naturalists’ Trust taking on the management of nearly half of it for wildlife. This is now one of its finest reserves, with internationally significant flocks of wading birds, nesting terns and the last of only two pockets of red squirrels in the south of England.
The 70s leading the way in UK conservation
The Dorset Naturalists’ Trust was not afraid to think big right from the start; by the 1970s, it already managed 24 reserves on land and now turned attention to Dorset’s marine habitats, about which even less was known then than now. The first of its ‘Studies in Conservation’ was the 1974 publication ‘Marine Conservation in Dorset’, a ground-breaking, or should that be wave-breaking, blueprint for marine conservation that attracted national acclaim. It followed two years of survey work and led to the first mainland voluntary marine reserve in the UK, the Purbeck Marine Wildlife Reserve in 1978. Bringing together the Smedmore Esate, fishermen, boat users, divers and anglers, it has become a model of good practice and has inspired and informed the creation of voluntary marine reserves across the country. With its Fine Foundation Marine Centre, based in Kimmeridge Bay, Dorset Wildlife Trust has opened the eyes of countless people of all ages to the wonders of the marine world, featuring in BBC Springwatch in 2010 and now recognised as one of the foremost marine wildlife sites in Europe.
The 80s protecting Dorset’s finest habitats
By 1986, it was time to celebrate the Silver Jubilee with a new name, Dorset Trust for Nature Conservation, reflecting how the Trust had moved on from the days of a small group of experts and big landowners to a wide membership of people who loved nature. With 40 reserves right across the county, the new name said it all.
A Jubilee Appeal enabled the purchase of two important reserves, Bracketts Coppice and Powerstock Common in west Dorset, when the Forestry Commission was selling off land. This was followed closely by an exciting opportunity to buy a pristine valley of species-rich grassland, the exquisite and unique Kingcombe Meadows. This area had been farmed traditionally for generations and was particularly rich in wildlife. Raising the money to both buy and manage the site properly was difficult, but once again Helen Brotherton made it happen and 300 acres were bought. The Trust has continued the traditional farming, further small areas have been added to the holding and this is now one of the finest nature reserves anywhere. In recent months a merger of the Kingcombe Environmental Studies Centre with the Trust has been concluded, offering an outstanding programme of environmental education and participation in this beautiful hidden corner of west Dorset, chosen by Simon King for BBC Springwatch filming in 2010.
The 90s wildlife is cool
The Trust grew rapidly in the 90s, as wildlife became much more of a mainstream interest and newsletters of the time are littered with pictures of some of the TV wildlife presenters of the day who helped turn a generation on to nature, including Chris Packham, Nick Baker and Bill Oddie. Bill opened the first Macdonald Hide, set at the end of a man-made causeway in the lagoon on Brownsea Island, and David Bellamy opened the new headquarters at Brooklands Farm in the Cerne Valley. Wildlife had become ‘cool’ and membership of the Trust soared as people responded to the continuing challenges for nature by pledging their support for their own natural environment.
Again moving with the times, the current name Dorset Wildlife Trust was adopted, lining up with the other Wildlife Trusts across the UK. Times had moved on dramatically from the sixties; heathland was protected by law from further development and recognised as a precious habitat, Brownsea Island was a bird watchers’ (and birds’) paradise, selected as a nest site by the first little egrets to breed in Britain. One thing that did remain constant, despite the appointment of paid staff, was the importance of volunteers. It was volunteers who set up the Trust, ran it for many years and still work tirelessly to help to manage reserves, educate young people and recruit new members.
After the millennium
In the last ten years, while continuing with the core business of protecting nature reserves and acting as a watchdog for threats to Dorset’s wildlife, DWT has been working more than ever to have an impact across whole landscapes. In the face of climate change, this ‘Living Landscape’ approach means joining up all the pockets of wildlife-friendly habitat, with the help of partner organisations, landowners, communities, churches and, by no means least, gardeners. One example is The Pastures New Project in west Dorset, where DWT works with farmers and communities to restore, recreate and manage flower-rich areas. Most recently, Pastures New has succeeded in bringing 250 hectares into wildlife-friendly, commercial management by organising a ‘landscape-scale’ stewardship agreement for 12 neighbouring farmers near Beaminster, the first such agreement in England.
At the other end of the county in the urban area, DWT has also been pushing the boundaries, working with marginalised and under-represented groups, with astonishing results in the improvement of mental and physical health, proving that working with nature really is good for your health. This lead on environmental volunteering is now being recognised by health professionals and by government, embracing the idea of ‘Big Society’.
Now, from a tiny organisation run by a band of dedicated volunteers, DWT has grown massively, with nearly 70 staff, but is still powered by its huge band of dedicated volunteers and members. Part of a nationwide network, The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, Dorset joins its voice with that of 46 Wildlife Trusts to champion nature across the UK, with notable successes including the hard-won Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009. That year saw the end of an era, with the death of Helen Brotherton, but her legacy lives on, and the exhortation of 1961 still stands:
“Those who genuinely desire to preserve the natural features of the County must take positive action to safeguard them”.
2011 is a year of celebrations and special events to mark this great milestone and to launch the next 50 years of working for Dorset’s wildlife and natural environment.
- Join Dorset Wildlife Trust ring 01305 264620
- Life Membership Special Offer half price to celebrate the Golden Jubilee. Single Life £275 and Joint Life £375.
- Dorset Wildlife Fund - £50 challenge The Dorset Wildlife Fund has been set up provide emergency and long term financial support for particular aspects of DWT’s work: land purchase, development of educational facilities, nature reserve management and for nature-restoration projects. If you care about Dorset’s wildlife and countryside
- BSO Concert The year of celebrations ends with a concert by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on Saturday 3rd December 2011 at Lighthouse, Poole, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Music includes Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending, Gustav Holst’s Egdon Heath and Henry Balfour Gardiner’s A Berkshire Idyll.
Written by Nicky Hoar, with acknowledgements to DWT Chairman Nigel Webb
Some more dates and stats!
1961 Dorset Naturalists’ Trust formed
1962 Lease of Brownsea Island Nature Reserve
1964 1000 members
1966 Bracketts Coppice leased
1967 Dorset Young Naturalists formed
1967 10th nature reserve acquired
1970 Countryside Award to Brownsea Nature Reserve
1971 24 nature reserves
1972 2000 members
1973 First conservation officer appointed
1974 3000 members
1975 Partnership with National Farmers’ Union
1976 First office in Bournemouth
1978 Purbeck Marine Wildlife Reserve
1981 Heathland appeal
1984 4 local members’ groups
1985 Powerstock Common purchased
1986 Name changed to Dorset Trust for Nature Conservation
1994 Name changed to Dorset Wildlife Trust
1995 Move to Brooklands Farm at Forston, near Dorchester
1998 Bill Oddie opens the first Macdonald Hide on Brownsea Island
2007 Chris Packham welcomes 25,000th member
2008 BBC Autumnwatch on Brownsea Island with Bill Oddie & Kate Humble
2009 Death of Helen Brotherton, President of Dorset Wildlife Trust
2010 Simon King opens new Macdonald Hide on Brownsea Island
- Dorset has the greatest biodiversity, for its size, of any county in Britain
- Dorset has a 10km square containing more plant species than any other in Great Britain (SY98, which includes Wareham and Corfe Castle - New Atlas Of The British And Irish Flora 2002)
- Heathland has more species of spider than any habitat in the UK
- Otters are now found on all Dorset’s river catchments
- Dorset is the only site for Britain’s rarest spider, the ladybird spider
- Dorset has all 6 species of British reptile as well as some alien invaders!
- The first breeding little egrets in Britain nested on Brownsea Island
- Poole Harbour is one of only 2 sites for red squirrels in the south of England
- Dorset’s DORIS marine mapping leads Europe in defining how our seas are used
- Dorset’s seagrass meadows are the only site in the country where both British species of seahorse are known to breed.
- Dorset is the only place in the UK where the anemone shrimp has been found
- The only known undulate ray nursery in Britain is near Swanage
- Chairman Nigel Webb
- Chief Executive Simon Cripps
- Over 1000 active volunteers
- 25,000 members
- Over 40 nature reserves
- Part of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts, a nationwide network of 47 Wildlife Trusts
- Base for BBC Autumnwatch 2008 and Simon King’s Springwatch team in 2010
Left to right, David Attenborough, Pam Knight (DWT), Kevin Cook (DWT warden), Helen Brotherton in Winter 1985 at the time of the building of the causeway to the first Macdonald Hide on Brownsea Island’s lagoon.
Chris Packham welcomes the 25,000th member Jeff Pearson at Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Urban Wildlife Centre. Left to right Jeff Pearson, Chris Packham and then Chief Executive Peter Scupholme.
Simon King at Kimmeridge Bay for Springwatch 2010
David Bellamy plants a tree at the opening of Brooklands farm, DWT headquaters in 1995
From left to right; Gordon Beningfeild, Helen Brotherton and Bill Humphreys celebate the purchase of Kingcombe Meadow
Marine Handbook produced in 1974
David Attenborough helps to build Macdondald hide causeway on Brownsea island 1986