Slimbridge Wetlands Centre proudly wears the moniker “birthplace of modern conservation” – so it is like the Eden of bringing back Eden. I can hear all the cynical conservationists saying “yeah, according to who”…
…well it should it whom – because it is according to none-another than Sir David Attenborough. If he says so, who would dare argue, and why bother anyway, it needs to be on the map somewhere (and I don’t hear any other claimants).
Nestled on the banks of the Severn River, wetlands owned by the Berkeley Estate, about an hour from anywhere like Gloucester, the Slimbridge Wetlands Centre is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. While Slimbridge isn’t renowned for its central location, it is renowned for three things.
Firstly, there are the 35-thousand migrating birds using the fox-proof Sanctuary and surrounds each year, overwintering from their Arctic home. The wetlands are also home to endangered species from around the world – and is credited with saving Hawaiian Nene from extinction after a successful breeding and reintroduction program. The wetlands also deliver a breeding program for England’s Common Cranes.
Secondly, there are opportunities for all-ages to engage with wildlife – to see, hear, touch, learn and be inspired. ‘Family friendly’ and comfortable bird hides that the Bitterns love as much as the Babies. Frog displays telling stories of amphibian decline from around the world. Opportunities to feed birds, which although is not generally encouraged as a thing in Australia, it clearly is a unique, paternalistic way of connecting us to wildlife* – providing nourishment to another animal is clearly the simplest and most direct way of expressing care. And, of course, a vast menu of more traditional wildlife experience opportunities – canoeing, quiet hides, walking tours and landcruiser river tours are all on offer. The visitor facilities were significantly upgraded with a Millennium Grant (which also funded the Eden Project) – affording access for people of all-abilities to a showcase facility including tower bird hide, café, gift shop, education area and interpretive spaces.
Putting #1 and #2 together — there are more than 250,000 human visitors each year. What a revelation that is, after crossing a canal, arriving through a small village to the beacon that is the visitors centre, and the looking back down the entrance-path seeing the cars stream in – during a weekday. The facilities and activities programs are served up with sophistication targeted for different visitor group segments – learners, social visitors, hobbyists and sensualists (there is a finer scale segmentation, I just didn’t want to do it injustice).
But a bunch of people and plethora of experiences isn’t enough to win oneself the Stamp of Approval from Sir David as the birthplace of modern conservation. The third thing is not so much about the what, but about the people who started it and continue the journey today…
These guys did it all first, packaged it all up, delivered on-ground conservation outcomes, and went on to spawn new national and international organisations that have changed the world. A gentleman called Peter Scott, later Sir Peter Scott, was the founder of the site, and WWT, and WWF, and the IUCN Red List.
The Trust at Slimbridge was set up by Sir Peter in 1946, as a centre for research and conservation. At a time when conservation focused on creating people-free spaces, he opened the site to the public so that everyone could enjoy access to nature.
The birthplace of modern conservation, according to Sir David, was the start of bringing people back to nature, bringing nature into Sanctuaries when it needed human help, and bringing it all together with ecological science.
What is lovely about Slimbridge is the story-telling around Sir Peter, the legacy he created, the intricacy of his observations, and his leadership. Slimbridge is as much about telling the story of migrating swans as it is about telling the story of their discovery, learning, engagement and their nurturing.
I was fortunate to sit in Sir Peter’s office and admire his handwork on the original WWF logo, and when leaving Slimbridge scooped a copy of his autobiography including an original sketch by him. While these are nice mementos the greater impression is of leadership, legacy, the drive to make a difference and how engaging and inspiring the stories of people who care can be at any site…
A great deal of thanks is owed to Mr Martin Spray CBE and his team, especially Rebecca Jordan, Kevin Peberdy, Ruth Seymour, and Gary Haseley-Nejrup who shared their experiences generously and made the experience memorable and effective. This study tour is sponsored by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust.
*if we can’t feed the birds in Australia, can we find something we can feed?