Reflections on the Duke of Edinburgh's early commitment to conservation in the UK

Mill Pond Road, Gibraltar Point in 1964 ©Barrie Wilkinson

Tim Sands, Trustee of the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, reflects on the Duke of Edinburgh's contribution to wildlife conservation in the UK

The Duke of Edinburgh’s considerable contribution to international wildlife conservation has been highlighted in the many tributes paid to him following his death at the beginning of April. Much less has been said about his vision and early support for wildlife conservation in this country.

Over time, the conservation spotlight on the royal family has moved from the Duke of Edinburgh to his son, the Prince of Wales and grandsons the Princes William and Harry and many today are unaware of his role in championing new conservation practices and thinking starting more than sixty years ago.

In 1959, three years after The Duke of Edinburgh launched his Award Scheme, His Royal Highness became President, and actively supported, the National Conservation Corps, to enable young people to ‘spend “hard work” holidays’ doing important management on nature reserves; an early task was at Gibraltar Point. Within two years, Lincolnshire, along with at least five other Wildlife Trusts, had established its own Conservations Corps and was supporting two independent groups in Lincoln and Grimsby.

National Nature Week in the 1960s

In 1963, the centrepiece of a ground-breaking National Nature Week was an exhibition, sponsored by The Observer newspaper which attracted an unprecedented, 50,000 visitors. The young Wildlife Trusts played a prominent part in the week, experimenting with new methods of interpretation – nature trails, field museums, information centres and mobile exhibitions.

It was while visiting the national exhibition that The Duke of Edinburgh proposed a two-day study conference under the title, The Countryside in 1970. He did this conscious that there was a lack of contact between the many different bodies and interests involved and a lack of any reliable and accepted common picture of the problems, trends and solutions for the countryside.

The initiative was seized upon by the Government’s Nature Conservancy. By involving the voluntary sector and industry as its co-sponsors, the Conservancy was able to promote more radical ideas than it could have done on its own. The Duke of Edinburgh was the President and active participant in the first conference in 1963 and two subsequent conferences held in 1965 and 1970.

Among several Lincolnshire contributors, the Trusts’ Honorary Secretary at the time, Ted Smith, presented a paper on the Trust movement to the conference in 1963 and another on the role of the Trusts in education for one of the many Study Groups in 1965. He also made important interventions in the 1970 conference on the ‘meagre safeguards’ for special wildlife sites and the need for more encouragement and funding for the voluntary conservation sector.

National Nature Week commemorative stamps
I don’t know whether it is a characteristic only of British people but so often it seems that a really worthy cause only gets the interest and support it needs when it is virtually lost.
HRH The Duke of Edinburgh's opening remarks at the first 'Countryside in 1970' conference

That the conferences provided some much needed early structure to nature conservation thinking and organisation and succeeded in stimulating ‘interest and support’ at the highest level, most notably with the Government’s announcement of a single Department for the Environment for the first time, was in no small measure due to The Duke of Edinburgh’s initiative, drive and commitment to the environmental cause.

Volunteers from the National Conservation Corps at Linwood Warren in 1960

Volunteers from the National Conservation Corps at Linwood Warren in 1960.
In 1970 the Conservation Corps became an independent body, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers - now The Conservation Volunteers.

Cover of Wildlife in Trust by Tim Sands

Tim Sands has worked for more than 45 years in wildlife conservation. He is the author of Wildlife in Trust: A Hundred Years of Nature Conservation - a history of The Wildlife Trusts. It charts the changing fortunes of UK wildlife and the nature conservation movement founded to protect it.