New Elizabethan naturalists – thoughts from Tom Oliver.

Our poll still has a day to run as I write, so I shouldn’t draw conclusions based on the exact number of votes cast for each of our twelve New Elizabethan Naturalists. What I can say is that I am very glad we did the poll for two main reasons.

First, it has been an occasion to contemplate, discuss and honour the works of some exceptional people, whom most of us, no doubt, immensely admire. Only four of them are still alive. As a nation we can be profoundly grateful that ecology, nature conservation, and love of the natural world have been so well served by these people alongside many others. At the same time, the comments of contributors have added the names of many more inspiring people who could have been on our list and by no means all of whom we considered.  We’ve both learned a lot and I hope the process has stimulated many people’s curiosity and spirit of enquiry.

The original reason I got in touch with Mark was to see if we could nominate Max Nicholson for the BBC’s official sixty Elizabethans. That wasn’t possible, and by hosting our poll on his website, Mark has done a very public spirited thing himself for which he should be thanked. It’s been a really good use of web space.

The other reason I’m glad we did the poll is that it has, as far as I am concerned revealed so many valuable insights beyond ecology and nature conservation: into history, public service, human nature, and how we might do things better.


  • History: For instance, the influence of the Second World War on our twelve is arresting: one fought in the dangerous North Atlantic on destroyers (Scott), one fought, was badly wounded, captured and imprisoned in a camp where Russian prisoners were deliberately starved to death (Moore); one organised the convoy system which prevented us all starving in the UK (Nicholson); one worked on the agricultural war effort (Fisher), one worked on radar (Lack) and one at Bletchley Park (Rothschild). For others, the war brought abrupt and unwelcome disruption as children, which they took in their stride and which influenced their careers.
  • Public service:  I am struck by the extraordinary power of the instinct for public service shown by our twelve in their very different ways. So much public good from so few, with such enduring effects. From Nicholson’s part in founding the BTO in 1932, through the huge achievements of the 1940s (the Nature Conservancy, National Nature Reserves, SSSIs, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty); the pioneering of modern zoos as regenerators of endangered species with high collection standards; the creation of incomparable natural history broadcasting (Soper as well as Attenborough); the huge strides in ecology and the protection of ecosystems from terrible contamination (the Monks Wood team); the establishment of effective public policy to protect and enhance our natural environment; to the development of publicly accessible nature reserves and huge public support for conservation. All this for all of us.
  •  Human nature: It’s clear that these people brought out the best in those around them, to hugely beneficial effect. Many of their colleagues testify to just this. Also, money was no object: for some, there was a lot, for others, precious little; it’s not possible to tell from their work. Character was decisive.
  • How we might do things better: there is a generosity of spirit and collaboration amongst these twelve which we sorely need to rediscover.  The semi-natural world is a vulnerable place, and we can ill-afford the territoriality which can hamper conservation today. I am certain that our candidates would all of them, urge us, now, to find common causes rather than reasons to fall out and argue, even in today’s very different circumstances.


Two more things:

First, there is a spectacularly various mixture of things these people have done beyond their main roles: Peter Scott being British Gliding Champion in 1963; James Fisher landing on and claiming Rockall for the UK in 1955; Rothschild’s campaign to legalise homosexuality; Southwood’s Chairing of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution; Moore’s internationally renowned work on dragonflies; Durrell’s magnificent writing; the extraordinary Roots and Shoots movement begun by Goodall; Ratcliffe saving the Flow Country: the list goes on.

If I am allowed to single out one thing, almost impossible to do, it might be David Lack’s reconciliation of Anglican Christianity with evolutionary theory: something which is important to me.


If I could single out two people I miss being on our list, they might be:

1) GR Potts, former Director of what is now the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, whose pioneering work on insects, birds and arable crops remains central to much agri-environment policy; and

2)  Oliver Rackham, OBE, Hon. Prof. of Historical Ecology at Cambridge,whose work on understanding the relationship between landscape and ecology changed my own career.

And I should declare an interest: I am a nephew of one of the candidates, from whom, in particular, I have learned a vast amount.

Last of all:

In a time when mass communications can inhibit accuracy, and an overloaded western society has a frighteningly short memory, I hope our New Elizabethan Naturalists poll will, in a very modest way, help anyone who has seen it take our predecessors and their work more seriously and inspire us to work with the highest standards we can muster, for the common good.


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6 Replies to “New Elizabethan naturalists – thoughts from Tom Oliver.”

  1. Great post and some really important thoughts about what history teaches us. If you're going to add National Parks into the list of great achievements, which I think is right, then you would have to add in John Dower. John was not a naturalist or scientist, but his vision for the concept and drive to deliver the reality of National Parks was key to the legislation and the first designations. Perhaps the Olympian Harold Abrahams needs a mention too as the first Secretary if the National Parks Commission too.

    1. John Dower! Absolutely. Thank you for remembering him. And I worked at the (then) Council for National Parks ten years' ago... We were trying to keep to naturalists, and I suppose we were excluding landscape heroes. Rackham didn't quite fit and I suppose Dower too. But I had overlooked him: shameful.

      What a fascinating thing to hear that Harold Abrahams was a leading pioneeer of the NPC. Thank you.

  2. Thank you Tom for that lovely thoughtful piece of writing. I initially felt the list was rather retrospective and I think you have demonstrated the value and importance of honouring our forebears and reflecting on the example they gave in so many ways. These are great footsteps to have before us and to attempt to follow. Your piece has added wings to my heels this morning. A great start to my day.

    (And that was a wicked tease ... whose nephew??)

    1. Susan,

      You are very kind. I'm delighted the poll has had an elevating effect! And you're quite right about the footsteps.

      Perhaps I will have to say whose nephew,....

  3. An excellent post, beautifully written.

    I am glad you have highlighted the omission of Oliver Rackham and Dick Potts. A few of us had commented on the omission of OR, but I for one had completely overlooked Dick Potts, which is really quite amazing when you consider the impact of his work on current agri-environment policy.

    Reading your post has made me think that wouldn't it be fantastic if the BBC were to commission a biographical documentary TV series on the lives of the 'New Elizabethan Naturalists' ? It would be fascinating and may inspire another generation of great naturalists...wishful thinking I know.

    1. What a very good idea! The next Dimbleby expedition? Or perhaps we could consider a list of which presenters or journalists would be fit to take it on?! Let's see...


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