The UK’s top 20 conservationists

James Fair picks his best BBC Wildlife feature from recent years.


This list was published in 2010. The May 2015 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine featured the first ever BBC Wildlife Power List – Britain’s top 50 conservation heroes. Click here to read the full list and see how it compares to the list below that James created five years ago. 

Everybody has a hero, whether it be a sporting icon, a virtuoso musician, a writer or, for those of us who love wildlife, a conservationist or environmentalist.

Well, that’s what we concluded a few years ago, and so we began a search for Britain’s top conservationist – our ultimate wildlife hero, if you like.
In addition, it had struck me that BBC Wildlife doesn’t give enough credit to the remarkable people who devote their lives to protecting butterflies, preserving tropical rainforests or investigating the dangers of pesticides. We wanted to set that straight.
So, we set up a special panel of people who knew more about conservation than almost anyone else in Britain, and  let them decide.
The results were surprising and controversial, and they sparked a flurry of letters to the magazine.
If you didn’t see the article at the time, scroll down – but remember what our panel chairman John Burton said about the overall winner not being the most important thing. “It is the overall list of 50 eco-heroes that really counts,” he wrote.
Read it for yourself and see if you agree...
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The UK’s top 20 conservationists
BBC Wildlife’s mission is to raise awareness of how the natural world can best be preserved, and so we thought it was  time we celebrated the people who make this possible. So we set up a panel of experts and they compiled a list of the UK’s most influential living conservationists. Here are the results:
Introduction by John A Burton, Chief Executive, World Land Trust
“When I was asked to chair the BBC Wildlife panel to adjudicate on the UK’s most influential living conservationists, my initial response was that I was the last person who should be considered for such a job. In the past, I have publicly criticised awards of this nature.
But this exercise was different – I genuinely believed it would raise awareness about how conservation works. Many of the people in the top 20 are not well known, and if their inclusion casts a spotlight on the work they do, then that has to be good.
In addition, no one was able to nominate themselves, there was no prize incentive and the judging panel was quite independent of vested interests and had wide-ranging views.
Though only 6 out of my personal top 20 made it to the final list printed here, we all agreed that it represented a reasonable consensus and that they were all people who have had a significant impact on the conservation of wildlife, and continue to do so.
There were some things on which we could not agree – even on such basic concepts as what constitutes a wildlife conservationist, for instance. Was it someone who has an impact on wildlife conservation? Or someone who is knowledgeable of, and directly involved in, conservation? The top 20 includes both.


20. Charles Clover Newspaper journalist
  • Main achievement As environment editor of the Daily Telegraph, bringing wildlife and countryside issues to a mass readership.
  • Influential because Along with other journalists such as John Vidal, Geoffrey Lean and Mike McMarthy, he has brought conservation issues to the fore.
19. Hugh Synge Botanist
  • Main achievement Getting plant conservation onto the global agenda and starting Plant Talk, the online plant conservation magazine.
  • Influential because Synge helped create the IUCN/WWF Plants Conservation Programme. He was also influential in preparing management policies for European national parks.
18. Oliver Rackham Woodland ecologist
  • Main achievement Reshaping attitudes to the conservation of British woodlands, mainly through his writing.
  • Influential because His classic book, The History of the Countryside, is frequently cited by conservationists as a key text.
17. Francis Sullivan Campaigner
  • Main achievement Finding practical solutions to the issue of the unsustainable harvesting of tropical timber in developing countries.
  • Influential because Having been a senior executive with WWF-UK, Sullivan is now HSBC’s deputy head of sustainable development, and oversees its £25-million conservation programme.
16. Chris Baines Policy advisor and writer
  • Main achievement Turning gardening into a conservation pastime.
  • Influential because Over the past 20 years, huge amounts of research have shown just how important our gardens are for wildlife. Would that have been the case had Baines not written How to be a Wildlife Gardener way back in 1981? He also has huge influence on policy-makers with his views on river and floodplain management.
15. Fiona Reynolds Director, the National Trust
  • Main achievement Bringing countryside conservation issues to the fore in her role as director general of the National Trust, and formerly as head of the Council for the Protection of Rural England.
  • Influential because The National Trust is one of Britain’s largest landowners, with more than 200,000 hectares under its control. Under Reynolds, it has become more committed than ever to conservation.
14. Sir Ghillian Prance Botanist
  • Main achievement Being one of the foremost botanists of his generation.
  • Influential because He has furthered the cause of plant conservation all over the world and discovered more than 300 species in the Amazon Basin. Now scientific director of the Eden Project in Cornwall.
13. Ian Redmond Great ape campaigner
  • Main achievement Getting great ape range states to actively consider conservation of our closest living relatives.
  • Influential because Redmond has taken the survival of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans onto a global stage through his unceasing work as the chief technical consultant to the UN’s Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP). He campaigns for rhinos, too.
  • Judge Suzanne Berry says Ian appears everywhere you look, increasing the visibility of conservation issues.
12. John Beddington Fisheries scientist
  • Main achievement Together with Sidney Holt, John did the maths that persuaded the International Whaling Commission (IWC) that a moratorium on whaling was necessary – the ban came into effect in 1985 and has remained in place, despite Japanese efforts, ever since.
  • Influential because Whaling was one of the most high-profile wildlife issues of the 1970s and 1980s. Beddington proved that these battles could be won with good science. He also launched Mammals Trust UK, which he chairs.
  • Judge Janet Barber says John broke the IWC open to the NGOs.
11. Peter Melchett Environmental campaigner
  • Main achievement Enabling Countryside and Wildlife Link, the umbrella organisation of more than 30 wildlife groups formed in 1980, to gain access to policy makers within government.
  • Influential because As a Labour minister in the 1970s, he was a member of the establishment fighting for environmental causes. He went on to be executive director of Greenpeace, where he was a prominent campaigner against GM crops, and is today policy director of the Soil Association, the UK’s most important organic food and farming organisation.
  • Judge Janet Barber says Peter supported the NGOs when they had no friends.
10. Martin Warren Entomologist
  • Main achievement Publicising the steep decline of butterflies and moths in the UK and Europe over the past 25 years.
  • Influential because It’s easier to ignore the plight of insects than of birds, but understanding how their populations are falling – and why – can reveal more about the state of the environment than many other indicators. Martin began his career researching wood whites and heath fritillaries, and today, as chief executive of Butterfly Conservation, is the most high-profile voice for insect conservation in Britain. He’s been campaigning on the issue for more than 30 years..
  • Judge Suzanne Berry says Most of us would know little about the perilous state of many insect species were it not for Martin and Butterfly Conservation.
9. David Macdonald Mammal conservation scientist
  • Main achievement Founding and running Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), one of the most high-profile science-based conservation groups in the world.
  • Influential because WildCRU has more than 50 conservation scientists working all over the world, engaged in finding practical solutions to human-animal conflicts. He has made popular films – such as Meerkats United, which won the Wildscreen Award in 1988, and Night of the Fox, which also received critical acclaim – and edited The Encyclopaedia of Mammals, a key text for both scientists and non-scientists that was first published in 1984.
  • Judge Janet Barber says David is in a class of his own in terms of science and influence.
8. David Bellamy Botanist and broadcaster
  • Main achievement Making the most unsexy wildlife – peatbogs and plants – compellingly interesting to a generation of young people in the 1980s and 1990s.
  • Influential because He is a qualified biologist, whose science is enlivened by a warm personality and huge reserves of energy and enthusiasm. In 1983, he went to jail in Tasmania for blockading the Franklin River in protest at plans for a dam – direct action way before Swampy became briefly famous in the 1990s. His position allows him to be one of the most prominent and controversial critics of windfarms.
    He has, however, lost some prestige in recent years because of his denial of the human causes of global warming, and, in 2005, he lost positions as president of both Plantlife and The Wildlife Trusts because both charities saw his views as incompatible with their own stances.
  • Judge Lord Cranbrooks says David enthused a generation of wildlife conservationists, and this legacy endures. Durability is a test of influence.
7. James Lovelock Scientist
  • Main achievement His ‘Gaia’ theory of the world as a single ‘super organism’, and his research that helped to show the damage caused to the ozone layer by the chemicals used in fridges and aerosols.
  • Influential because The ‘Gaia’ theory had mass appeal that orthodox environmental science could never have had. Thanks to his work on CFCs, an international treaty was drawn up to ban their use, and this has been successful. And with his concern for the impacts of climate change on the planet, he has also re-ignited the nuclear power debate.
  • Judge Janet Barber says James brought a quite profound, philosophical dimension to nature conservation.
6. John Gummer Conservative politician
  • Main achievement Introducing effective environmental legislation as environment secretary in the mid-1990s. This included the Landfill Tax (the UK’s first ever ‘green’ tax) and curbing the spread of out-of-town shopping centres.
  • Influential because He is the yardstick against which all ministers are judged on the environment. He was once described by Friends of the Earth as “the best environment secretary ever,” and is the only government minister to have been awarded the Medal of Honour by the RSPB.
  • Judge Lord Cranbrook says The Landfill Tax was hypothecated – John broke through the Treasury rules on that.
5. Jonathon Porritt Environmentalist
  • Main achievement Putting environmental issues on the political agenda in the 1980s and 1990s, first as chairman of the Ecology (now Green) Party and later as director of Friends of the Earth.
  • Influential because As a co-founder of Forum for the Future and chairman of the Government’s Sustainable Development Commission, Porritt is an insider these days, someone who can influence policy at the highest levels. He was also one of the first environmentalists to realise that, in order to achieve results, you had to work with, not against, businesses. And he’s been an advisor to Prince Charles, too.
  • Judge Peter Marren says He is an elder statesman now.
4. Dame Jane Goodall Primatologist
  • Main achievement Her ground-breaking work on chimpanzees that showed they used tools and hunted other animals.  
  • Influential because Together with Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas, she has done more than anyone else alive to raise awareness of the status of great apes and their shrinking habitat. These days, her main role is as a roving speaker for the Jane Goodall Institute. She spends 300 days a year travelling the world, lecturing and speaking to schoolchildren about human threats to wildlife and the environment.
  • Judge Suzanne Berry says Jane has inspired millions to care about apes and other wildlife.


3. Norman Moore Conservation scientist
  • Main achievement To be the first key scientist to warn about the dangers of pesticides.
  • Influential because Moore shaped our attitude to the human impact on the environment and developed the ‘precautionary principle’ – though his research suggested that DDT and other organochlorines were killing wildlife, he could not prove it, but he still recommended their use should be phased out.
  • Judge John Burton says Norman is the only remaining member of the old gang of Max Nicholson, Richard Fitter and Peter Scott still around.
2. Sir David Attenborough BBC TV presenter
  • Main achievement To help millions of people to understand, and care more about, the natural world.
  • Influential because The most trusted communicator of his generation. His tv series – from Life on Earth in the late 1970s to last year’s Planet Earth – have done more to raise awareness about wildlife and the natural world than anything else in the past 30 years (and to conserve something, you have to be aware of it). In the past five years, he has started to use his influence to speak out about issues such as climate change.
  • Judge John Burton says Politicians have started to take greater notice of the threat of global warming since Sir David began to sound the alarm.
1. HRH Prince Charles Heir to the throne
  • Main achievement Speaking out about environmental and conservation issues long before they were fashionable, and raising the status of organic food and farming.
  • Influential because The UK may have been a fully-fledged democracy for more than 80 years but, whether you like it or not, when Prince Charles speaks, the world – not just the British people – listens. Earlier this year, he was awarded the ‘Global Environmental Citizen Prize’ by Harvard Medical Center. He was cited as having been “for decades, a leading international voice in protecting the natural world.” He is Britain’s leading organic farmer through his Duchy of Cornwall estate. The Duchy is aiming for 80 per cent of its farms to be included in Defra’s Entry Level Environmental Stewardship Scheme by 2008.
  • Judge Peter Marren says The Prince is thoughtful and intelligent and was a champion of many things in the natural world before they became fashionable.
OUR TOP 21–50 CONSERVATIONISTS (in alphabetical order):
  • Myles Archibald Natural history book publisher
  • Nick Baker TV presenter
  • Simon Barnes Wildlife writer
  • Mark Carwardine Writer and photographer
  • Nigel Collar Conservation scientist
  • Roy Dennis Ornithologist
  • Alastair Fothergill BBC NHU TV producer
  • Sarah Fowler Shark scientist
  • Alistair Gammell RSPB
  • Stephen Harris Mammal scientist
  • Sidney Holt Fisheries scientist
  • Tony Juniper Director, Friends of the Earth
  • Ken Livingstone Mayor of London
  • Caroline Lucas Green Party MEP
  • Gren Lucas Botanist
  • Richard Mabey Nature writer
  • Norman Myers Conservation scientist
  • Ian Newton Raptor scientist
  • Bill Oddie TV presenter
  • Chris Packham TV presenter
  • Paul Racey Bat scientist
  • Mark Rose Fauna & Flora International
  • Stephen Rumsey Conservation benefactor
  • David Shepherd Painter and conservationist
  • Jane Smart Plant scientist
  • Jonathan Spencer Forestry Commission ecologist
  • Bill Sutherland Conservation scientist`
  • Jeremy Thomas Butterfly scientist
  • Vincent Weir Conservation funder
  • Tony Whitten World Bank advisor


James Fair is the news and travel editor of BBC Wildlife. Find out more about him and the team here

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