Dancersend Nature Reserve

Nominated by: Mick Jones

Hidden in the hills between Tring and Wendover there is a valley that has a special place in the history of the nature conservation movement.

The steep-sided valley just below the enigmatically-named sharp bend, The Crong, features a bit of a surprise – a very impressive, ornate pumping station, part of a complex of buildings, bore-holes and water storage tanks built by the Rothschilds between 1862 and 1866.  This is one of the most prominent records of the great influence the famous banking family had on the area.  It is located where two large Rothschild estates met back in the mid-1800s, one stretching south-west from Tring Park into the Dancersend Valley and the other extending through beech woods from Halton House to Aston Hill, Chivery and the highest point in the Chilterns.  The two estates, with their extensive beech woods, ancient coppices, open downs, spring-fed marshes and series of reservoirs, provided a riding, hunting and shooting playground for the family and their stream of wealthy and influential house guests.

The Dancersend valley was where the young Walter Rothschild and his younger brother Charles developed their love of nature, especially entomology, around the 1870s.  Walter (2nd Lord Rothschild) went on to form the largest zoological collection in the world at Tring.  Charles became an eminent entomologist and, realising the countryside he loved was under threat, invented the concept of nature conservation and founded the Wildlife Trusts movement to safeguard special places for wildlife.  His daughter, Miriam Rothschild, was a self-taught scientist and activist who continued her father’s work and was involved, with her brother and fellow scientist, Victor, in establishing Dancersend Nature Reserve in 1941 in memory of her father.

Miriam tells the story that her father and uncle took her to this valley when she was just 4 or 5 years old and she helped them collect butterflies.  The wealth of moth and butterfly species (the special interest of the two Rothschild brothers) and a collection of plants rare in the county had persuaded Charles Rothschild to acquire and protect 78 acres of the richest habitat in the valley and this now became one of the first group of nature reserves to be managed by the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, the organisation Charles had launched in 1912. It can truly be thought of as ‘the cradle of nature conservation’.

Dancersend Nature Reserve is now looked after by BBOWT, the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, and has grown to 211 acres, comprising woods, chalk grassland and scrub stretching right across the southern parts of Aston Clinton, Buckland and Drayton parishes – almost all of which is open to the public.

Much research has been carried out at Dancersend showing it to be one of the richest wildlife sites in the Chilterns. It now boasts 390 species of flowering plants and ferns, over 600 species of fungi and over 770 species of moths and butterflies, as well as many other types of insects.

Dancersend Nature Reserve was nominated by Mick Jones MBE, Volunteer Warden.