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Charles Waterton (1782 - 1865)

Charles WatertonWaterton's interest in wildlife seems to have started when he travelled to Guyana and Brazil where he saw exotic species such as chameleons, lemurs, sunbirds and alligators.

On one of these trips he fell ill with yellow fever and said that he "suffered and learnt mercy" and become opposed to the systematic destruction of wildlife.

When he returned to Walton Hall in 1820 he dedicated his life to observing and protecting the local wildlife, and created what is said to be the world's first nature reserve.

He bought a telescope to watch wild birds and built a stone wall stretching over 3 miles around the Walton Hall Estate to keep poachers out and the wildlife in.

Costing £9000 in 1824 (equivalent to £2.5 million today) Waterton said that he funded it from "the wine I do not drink".

In a society where many people shot wildlife for food or sport Waterton's hobby seemed eccentric to his contemporaries.

Being a Roman Catholic, his religious beliefs already separated him from mainstream British society and his idiosyncratic behaviour like using a wooden block for a pillow, walking barefoot in the park and reading Latin poetry in tree tops only added to his reputation.

To encourage more birdlife he planted trees, hollow tree trunks and branches were left for nesting birds like barn owls.

Artificial nest boxes (again, another world's first!) were built for owls, sand martins, jackdaws and starlings.

In 1842 he introduced the first little owls to Britain from Italy. Unfortunately, they only lived a few years and failed to breed. But he had more success with his favourite bird, the heron. He encouraged this 'persecuted wader' to shelter in the Park where over 40 pairs bred annually.

Walton Hall had originally been moated, but Waterton's father enlarged this in 1790 to form a lake.  It soon became a safe haven for all kinds of waterfowl.

Over a thirty year period Waterton recorded 119 species of bird in the park including rarities like peregrine, hobby, merlin and cormorant.

As well as having an enlightened approach to wildlife conservation Waterton was  ahead of his time in that he allowed the local villagers access to his estate to walk and to picnic.

Charles Waterton Watch TowerThere was even music and dancing in a small pillared temple surrounded by trees in what is known as 'The Grotto'.

Sadly, Waterton's good work was not carried on by his son, Edmund, who held shooting parties in the grounds to help pay off his debts. After 14 generations of Waterton's living in Walton Hall it was sold in 1877 to the chemical and soap works owner, Edward 'Soapy' Simpson, an old adversary of Charles Waterton's.

However, Waterton's conservation ideas lived on through his essays, wildlife diaries and the books he published. In the last few years we have all begun to share his beliefs on the value of nature.


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In this Section
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