From Rutland Water to the British Birdwatching Fair | Inside Tim Appleton’s wild career

Tim Appleton MBE (now retired) is well known as the warden of Rutland Water nature reserve in the UK and co-founder of the British Birdwatching Fair. Guest blogger Stephen Thompson talked to him about his interest in wildlife, where his career began, the importance of volunteering and much more but not forgetting the biggest conservation event in the world – Birdfair!

When did you first become interested in birds and was there someone that inspired you when you were younger?

My interest in birds started at an early age. My parents lived on a golf course in Bristol which gave me access to huge areas of woods. Unfortunately, I was one of those horrible little kids that collected the odd bird’s egg, [and] you learnt things that way as at the time there was no way of learning.

It was while doing this that really got me fired up and I started to become interested in all wildlife. There were Badger setts in the local woods as well as birds. Right from the beginning I realised I had passion not just for birds but all wildlife.

Sir Peter Scott who founded the Wildfowl and Wetlands trust at Slimbridge Wetland Centre was an amazing inspiration during my life, taking his mentorship on board in putting people and birds together. If you cannot educate and keep people on our side, then the birds and wildlife have no chance.

You are well known as warden/reserve manager at Rutland Water but where did your career start, and did you always want to work in conservation?

I went to school a little further away and on the way, there was a local wildlife park (Westbury Wildlife Park) where I got the opportunity to volunteer. I met a lot of people from Slimbridge WWT reserve.

I have always had a particular interest in ducks, geese and swans and my parents used to take me to Slimbridge where I could watch the birds. It was there that I had the thought that one day I could sit in my own garden and look out over the water.

[Steve: I suggested to Tim that dreams do come true as we are now sitting in the garden overlooking the shore of Rutland water on a lovely sunny morning. Tim agreed but did say that you have to work for them, but it is worth doing.]

My first job was at Slimbridge working with Sit Peter Scott for 5 years as deputy curator.

“I always dreamt of doing something that I personally felt driven to do & not being driven by other people, I had brilliant parents that did not push me in any particular direction. I passionately believe in what I wanted to do which was to help people and help wildlife.”

Swans at Rutland Water. Photo by Airwolfhound on Flickr.

What made you decide to apply for the job at Rutland Water even before it had become a nature reserve and why do you think it has been so successful as a nature reserve?

I had a brilliant job at Slimbridge but then this job at Rutland Water came up with the scope of doing something on a scale that had never ever been attempted before.

On a much smaller scale, there was a guy called Dr Geoffrey Harrison who had done some work on creating conservation areas on gravel pits and I spent a week with him learning about some of his work. This was an incredible opportunity and hundreds of people applied for the job – landowners, ex-servicemen wanting to do something in their retirement and many more.

I was given the job, but one thing I remember was arriving at the office of The Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust ( a rather small office) and speaking to the administrator who gave me an ordinance survey map and said, “Right, Tim, it is all yours, it’s somewhere over in Rutland”.

From that day on I have been pretty lucky with the Trust to have been given a pretty free hand to develop. I am possibly slightly different from some reserve managers in that I have an entrepreneurial streak in me somewhere and I could see all sorts of opportunities ahead. The transformation in the first 5 years was incredible:

  • I planted over 100,000 trees.
  • I organised working parties.
  • I set up volunteer schemes.
  • I designed where the hides were going to go.
  • I built nature trails and lagoons.

Rutland Water. Image by Iain Merchant on Flickr.

When I first started there was a lot of competition from other users of the reservoir such as sailing and fishing. The local water authority saw an opportunity to develop the site for recreation, but I had to fight to maintain the wildlife/conservation area. A reservoir users’ panel was established, and zoning policies were set up to section of parts of the reservoir for different users and because of this the birds soon started to make it their home.

Some Rutland Water facts:

  • The reservoir was built in 1970, has a perimeter of 37km and contains 124 million cubic metres of water.
  • Tim started work in 1975.
  • It started flooding in 1977 & reached top water line in 1979.
  • 15km of the shoreline are set aside for conservation.
  • It has a huge range of habitats: mature woodland, ancient woodland, new woodland, coppice woodland, old & new meadows, small ponds, lagoons, and the whole reservoir.
  • Rutland Water receives 100,000 visitors a year.
  • In 1982 it became a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest)
  • In 1992 it became a RAMSAR & SPA (Special Protection Area under European legislation).

(A Ramsar Site is a wetland site designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. The Convention on Wetlands, known as the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental environmental treaty established in 1971 by UNESCO and coming into force in 1975).

Rutland Water is known as the home of the British Birdwatching Fair. Could you explain what it is, how you first came up with the idea and how successful you think it has been?

Like many things in my life, this came down to seeing an opportunity. I went to the game fair one day (an event for countryside pursuits like shooting and fishing), but on walking round I realised that there was very little to cater for the birdwatching industry which I was heavily into at the time, so I thought why not do something?

To start with I came up with a new word, Birdfair – but what next? With no finances available from the wildlife trust or myself, how exactly would I set this up? I could not do it on my own; I would need some help.

I found a partner to help with the organisation and to come up with thoughts and ideas (Martin Davies from the RSPB), but a commercial connection was needed too, to help with the financial side of things. In Focus and Swarovski, two optical companies, came on board as sponsors to use Birdfair as a showcase to demonstrate their equipment.

We had 3 goals when first talking about Birdfair:

  1. Provide a shop window for the birding industry.
  2. Provide a place where people can meet and do some networking.
  3. Do something positive for conservation.

In the 30 years that Birdfair has been going we have raised £5 million towards conservation projects run by Birdlife International; that money was then invested and went onto raise a further £35 million.

The British Birdwatching Fair is now considered to be the biggest wildlife/ecotourism fair in the world. Its success, I think is down to a very small team of people organising it, and not too many chiefs. I have been retired for 2 years but I am still working on Birdfair 3-4 days a week and more if I need to.

“My biggest satisfaction is that there are now Birdfairs all over the world”

In April 2020, the Trust decided to terminate my contract and so I am no longer involved in the Birdfair at Rutland Water. This gave me the opportunity to launch a dream I have had to go global and inspire people across our wonderful planet to engage with the wildlife on their doorstep.

Global Birding’s inaugural event took place in October 2020 and set a world record when 33000 people recorded 7120 species of birds on a single day! We also raised £25,000 for Birdlife International to Stop Illegal Bird Trade. Global Birding will be holding two more event in May And October 2021. 

Image by Birdfair.

What part to volunteers play in conservation?

“Without volunteers we might as well go home tomorrow”. Volunteers are key to all areas of conservation. Here at the reserve, we have 600 volunteers on the books and last year 376 just for Birdfair. All the work they do equates to around 7,000 hrs which would cost approximately £80-90,000. If I had to pay that out each year then conservation would be the loser.

How important do you think teaching young people about conservation is? And what advice would you give to anyone wishing to pursue a career in conservation?

Recently at Birdfair we have recognised the importance of young people getting positively involved in conservation. I see far too many young people going into conservation and coming away with a degree but with very little practical experience. I want people to be much more involved in practical work.

“Why do you need a degree to manage a nature reserve? I do not have one! I just have a passion for doing what I do”.

We have a careers day at Birdfair where young people wanting to work in conservation can come along and talk to the experts and find out more about what it takes to get on in this line of work. We always try to encourage young people at Rutland. We have a work experience programme for trainees working as a trainee reserve officer for a year finding out about the job and getting the practical experience needed to help take them on to the career that they want.

What other initiatives have you been involved with at Rutland Water in making it such an amazing place for wildlife?

The 2nd biggest project at Rutland water that I was involved in was overseeing the idea of bringing Ospreys back as a breeding species in England for the first time in 150 years. I used to see them flying over now and again and wanted to attract them in to breed.

I used polystyrene cut outs attached to trees and platforms which resulted in a pair spending the summer but not breeding. What I really wanted to do was re-introduce Ospreys by bringing in chicks from elsewhere. I spoke with Natural England and Scottish authorities about getting the licence required and working out a programme of events. Anglian Water also came on board as a sponsor:

  • In 1996 the first birds were bought over from Scotland as 5-week-old chicks (they could feed themselves at that age).
  • They were kept in release pens (with an artificial nest) in rows of four with 3 in each and fed fish (caught at Rutland water) from behind cage and monitored. We fed them for a while on first release before they migrated.
  • The first Osprey returned in 1999 and bred in 2001. He was called ‘Mr Rutland’ and has since gone on to produce 54 young birds.
  • The 150tth chick was born in 2019.

I knew that the Ospreys returned to Africa and went through lots of different countries and areas that needed protecting. We wanted to know where they went, so we fitted satellite tags on the chicks enabling us to track their movements.

I then came up with another idea that I called Osprey Epal connecting schools and children on the Osprey’s migration route. We have now set up the Osprey foundation run by Roy Dennis and Tim Mckryll and run a series of school programmes and lesson plans which are available on our website. We now get around 30,000 visitors a year to our Lyndon centre just to view the Ospreys.

     “You need Iconic Species like the Osprey to inspire people”.

Have you been involved in any other conservation work away from Rutland Water?

Indirectly, yes. I have just been asked to go out to China to advise the Beijing government about a huge reservoir project and how they can use it for different forms of recreation and conservation and still maintain it as a water supply. I was invited to go to South Korea a few years ago to offer advice on a the Saemangeun project. A lot this sort of work is just giving advice and helping with ideas.

Ecotourism is a great way to get involved in conservation. What advice could you give if someone wanted to follow that career path?

I have always been interested in ecotourism and how it benefits local communities and getting them to embrace wildlife & conservation. It is an amazing idea, but you have to inspire the local people to make it work.

For example, if you were going to start your own company you would need contacts and a list of the countries you are going to specialise in. You would need a good business head and to make sure that you work with sustainable companies with the right credentials to make sure local people are benefitting. Use local lodges, taxis and guides.

Further down the line, local people will start to realise that this is much better than cutting down a forest. The success of ecotourism is ever apparent at Birdfair, with 64 countries now exhibiting offering a huge range of trips all over the world.

Image from Birdfair.

After all you have achieved in your career, how did you feel when you were awarded an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire)?

I felt very much that it was an achievement by an awful lot of people. I got the gong but without the volunteers and fantastic staff there was no way I could have done what I have done. It was a great honour to receive the award.

How important do you think it is that we continue to provide safe havens for our wildlife in the form of a nature reserve and what do you think the future holds for them?

Sadly, it is an uphill struggle – just think how much wildlife we have lost in Britain? With several million people around the country supporting NGOs (non-governmental organisations) like RSPB, we’re still losing stuff hands down.

But if we do not have these nature reserves and reservoirs of wildlife, what would it be like?

Attitudes to nature need to change and I think we are beginning to see the start of change, particularly with young people with the start-up of groups like Extinction Rebellion trying to get people to notice the issues and effects of climate change. Our climate has increased by about .7 of a degree in the last few years and it is predicted to increase to about 1.5 degrees in the next 20-30 years. People will die and it will have a massive impact on conservation.

Just look at the current issue with plastic in the environment. We have to change; we have to look at how industry works, and these reservoirs of wildlife are a good place to start. I would like to see more diversity in the countryside, farmers growing crops where crops grow best, other areas returning to a more natural state. With changing attitudes, it is hoped that MP’s (members of parliament) will listen and take note of what people are saying and do something about it.

Any farmer who wants to shoot pigeons and crows can apply for a licence and it will be given. When I was reserve manager, I used to put out legal traps a few times a year when there was no cover and then there were lots of breeding waders. Now there are lots of Crows and Magpies and not many breeding waders. Nobody really wants to kill, but if we are going to have things to refill the countryside and attitudes do eventually change, then we have to have this reservoir of wildlife to expand back out to the countryside.

One thing I am really against is the release of up to 40 million Pheasants into the countryside every year. What is the point of putting that many birds into the countryside? There is a shoot near Rutland water which have days where you can go and kill 2,000 birds – what is that all about?

I have got nothing against people shooting as long as it is on a limited scale, shoot for the pot and have a great day out with your mates. Driven Grouse shooting is crazy; why not have a walking the dog day and take a few grouse home for the pot, not bury them in the ground.

With 40 million Pheasants wandering around how many of them are killed on the road? Thousands probably. During the winter months this provides the Crows and Magpies with extra food so they enter the breeding season in top condition and instead of 3 eggs they might have up to 6 and the population starts to expand unnaturally because of the artificial supply of food that is available. This artificial food also helps to feed the Red Kite (a carrion feeder), but they can get knocked down by vehicles as they are slower to get away.

We are crowding everything into these nature reserves and if we are going to refill the countryside from these ‘reservoirs of wildlife’ then we need to find a balance.

Rutland Water. Image by Emphyrio from Pixabay.

Last words from the author, Steve Thompson

I am convinced attitudes will change and young people in particular will make a difference.

If you’re passionate about what you believe in and what you want to do, and you work hard, then perhaps dreams can come true. Do not be scared off by other people with a degree. Do your own thing and maybe you could make a difference to conservation in the future   


Author profile | Steve Thompson

Steve is an award winning Conservation Greenkeeper at John o Gaunt Golf Club in Bedfordshire, UK. He is passionate about wildlife and conservation on the golf course.


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