A hundred years ago, conservationists celebrated a victory in the battle to protect wildlife.
Back in the late Victorian era, it wasn’t climate change that posed the biggest threat to wild birds, but milliners fuelling a demand for feathers to decorate hats and other fashion accessories.
At the time, an estimated 61 bird species, including great crested grebes, little egrets and birds of paradise, were threatened with extinction as a result of the trade.
Over a cup of tea, a group of pioneering women, led by Emily Williamson, started the all-female Society of the Protection of Birds in 1889, who were all appalled by the slaughter.
They pledged not to wear feathers in their hats and their work persuaded MPs into passing the Plumage Act in 1921, leading to a ban on imports of exotic bird feathers. This month, the RSPB will celebrate the centenary of its success in halting the “evil trade”.
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“It was a crucial victory,” says Beccy Speight, chief executive of the RSPB.
“It demonstrated what you could achieve with strong campaigning and careful planning – lessons they learned, in part, from the suffragette movement. It showed we could make changes and that really built up confidence.”
But she explained how we are now “facing far greater threats to our wildlife as climate change takes a grip and nature is eroded”.
Over the century, the combined effect of global warming, intensive farming, pollution, pesticides and human development has had a huge impact.
One recent study found that almost 40 million birds have vanished from UK skies in the past 50 years, with some species being brought close
to extinction, including turtle doves.
This year is critical in the fight for nature with crucial conferences – including the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China, and the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow – which will see world leaders negotiating for ambitious global targets.
Although it took two decades of campaigning to get the Plumage Act passed, the urgency of the planet’s problems simply cannot wait that long.
But there is one major lesson that can be drawn from a century ago – proof that one person can really make a difference.