ON Thursday November 10, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust celebrates its 70th anniversary.

It’s a day when there is much to celebrate for, in seven decades, the organisation has grown to be one of the world’s largest and most respected wetland conservation institutions.

The original body, the Severn Wildfowl Trust, was founded by Sir Peter Scott in 1946 for the scientific study and conservation of wildfowl.

The Trust housed a collection of ducks, geese, swans and waders set in acres of wetland habitat, but what marked it out as something new was the focus on conservation, with its four ‘pillars’ of scientific research, conservation action, education and recreation. These core elements are still central to the organisation today.

Within its first year the Trust had over 1,000 members, with members of the public flocking to the Gloucestershire site to walk amongst the birds.

At the time, most zoos and reserves were areas where people watched animals behind bars, so the novelty of being surrounded by wildfowl and being able to feed them was a major draw.

The birds were the obvious attraction but Sir Peter recognised that the wetland habitat in which they live was just as important.

From the start, preserving and protecting these areas has been a key objective, and in 1989 the organisation’s name was changed to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, reflecting the emphasis on this aspect of conservation.

The work of managing wetland habitat continues today, with ground staff at all 10 Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) centres devoting their time to keeping the local environment in top condition, for wildlife, habitat and water resources.

It’s not just birds that benefit from such care: water voles and otters, grass snakes, dragonflies and butterflies, flowers and trees are all part of the rich biodiversity which is a feature of each WWT centre.

Further afield, the Trust’s regular expeditions, and its role in lobbying for protection of species and habitat, has given it a global reputation.

Such work involves partnership with fellow scientists around the world, and today’s expeditions are truly international – the current Flight of the Swans project, for example, involves WWT conservationist Sacha Dench flying a paramotor 7,000km alongside Bewick’s swans as they migrate from arctic Russia to the UK.

The project, which aims to find out the cause of the species’ decline, involves collaboration with local people and researchers in 11 countries along the flyway.

Work to save Critically-Endangered species is ongoing, with projects to save the spoon-billed sandpiper and Madagascar pochard also under way.

It is hoped these will build on successful reintroduction programmes featuring the white-winged wood duck in Thailand, and the common crane in Somerset.

As the Trust has grown, new centres have opened, and the organisation currently oversees 10 venues throughout the British Isles, from Caerlaverock, on the north Solway coast of Scotland, to Castle Espie in Northern Ireland, and Llanelli in Wales.

These welcome around a million visitors each year, including 50,000 school children for whom a visit may be their first encounter with the natural world.

The Trust’s work isn’t confined to the UK: WWT Consulting is currently working on the development of a new Wetland Centre in the heart of Dubai, and has previously worked on the renovation of a wetland in Cambodia, providing sustainable fishing for local communities, while acting as advisor on a wetland designed to absorb coastal storm surges in New York. As awareness of the environment has risen, so the Trust is investing in ecologically-sound practices at its sites.

The London Wetland Centre, which opened in 2000, for example, features the transformation of four redundant water reservoirs into an urban oasis for wildlife and people, while Steart Marshes, just along the Severn estuary from Slimbridge, features a newly-created salt marsh; this acts as a carbon store and protects nearby properties from flooding while creating fish nurseries, grazing for cattle, a wetland reserve, and a volunteering and education facility.

Looking back on 70 years, Sir Peter Scott’s fledgling organisation has taken wing and flown high. Most visitors think of the Trust as somewhere for a great family day out, and it is! But it’s so much more, having grown from humble beginnings to encompass a UK network of ten Wetland centres, complemented by conservation and research work worldwide.

Looking to the future, WWT’s core elements are as relevant today as they were all those years ago.

As the world faces the threat of climate change, the role of wetlands is more important than ever, and WWT’s scientists, researchers, staff and volunteers are committed to working together to make a difference for our natural world.