An Oral History by John Roberts

An oral history of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust by John Roberts recorded on 7 May 2012.

John Roberts Wildlife Trust Reminiscences

When I got seriously interested in natural history in 1969, I straightaway discovered everything was rapidly disappearing. Too many people needed more housing, more food, more goods and services, more roads, more everything. The countryside was vanishing or being vastly altered. So Val and I joined Warwickshire’s fledgling Nature Conservation Trust, both of us to become very active over the next 40+ years and ultimately Chairs of Council. The Trust we joined in 1970 was scarcely more than a gleam in the eye. David was a babe in arms confronting a massive Goliath.

WARNACT, as we called ourselves, ran from a cupboard in Warwickshire Museum. We moved on to rooms in Northgate Street, then the Old Drill Hall and finally into space at the Transport Workshops. All these were County Council properties in Warwick. The move to Brandon Marsh in 1989 was a bold step towards confident independence. The Trustees used to meet in Leamington College for Boys, graduating to Warwick University, before conducting business in the Barn at Brandon.

Our founders were a small, strongly ethical group, chaired by the geologist Professor Fred Shotton. The practical driving force, however, was Dr. Duncan Jeffray, who discovered the Man orchid at Ufton Fields doing his Ph.D. Duncan was a University biology lecturer, who somehow made time to become our Honorary Conservation Officer, going on to occupy almost every other Trust office. His energy thrust the organisation forward. I started as a Reserve volunteer and soon member of the Conservation Committee.

We early band of hopefuls talked endlessly about a shopping basket of top County sites we would dearly love to own or protect. Grand talk indeed, given our precarious finances! The Trust ran pretty much by the seat of its pants in those days: our accounts certainly showed more red than green. ‘Appeal’, ‘Grant’ and ‘Donation’ were the first words on our lips. In fact the cheapest and most effective route to conservation was, and still is, to influence the actions of significant others, such as land owners, farmers and planners.

We always endeavoured to advise and influence people widely about the threats we saw, starting with our members, the general public, councillors and MPs, teachers, businessmen and leaders of industry. Press releases were essential. Myself, I gave slide talks to any group that would sit on seats; and I wrote lots of articles, for instance doing a 2 year monthly series for the Leamington Courier. The Trust has always had a Newsletter, edited initially by Pam Copson from the Museum. Its appearance seems very homely alongside our current production; but the tree of birds we used as our symbol does retain its iconic freshness. We even published a book,’ The Nature of Warwickshire’, along with umpteen guides and leaflets.

Area Groups were formed throughout our patch to help inform, enthuse and retain members. They also played a role in reserve management. Our son still remembers his eighth birthday treat: setting fire to Ufton Fields! We called it scrub clearance.

The Trust promoted wildlife in schools and local communities through talks, classes, courses, exhibitions, even the Royal Show, where we once displayed Andy Tasker’s dug-up lawn as a wildflower meadow. We ran guided walks and open days on reserves, WATCH groups for children: in fact anything we could think of. A first gift shop in Sheep Street, Stratford (possibly the best showplace on earth) provided welcome publicity and proved a great earner, our pencils enthusiastically taken home to America and Japan. A second shop was added, opposite St. Mary’s Church, Warwick, and we ran Christmas shops in the Parade, Leamington.

Over the years membership slowly grew; staff and volunteers increased; we added more reserves; we reached more children; and we developed a substantial trading company. Principally we kept raising our game, and hugely increased our status and influence. From humble beginnings, the Trust came of age: all the better to fight Goliath!

John Roberts - 07 May 2012