I recently penned a book chapter on the history of domestic wildlife watching UK, tracing the earliest roots back to the late nineteenth century, most especially in the Highlands of Scotland, before charting and seeking to understand the huge boom in domestic nature tourism from the 1980s onwards. The modern formative roots lie with RSPB ‘Operation Osprey’ at Loch Garten originating in 1959, an idea of openly showing the public the nest of a rare breeding bird, once so radical as to generate near hysteria amongst the conservation elite. For the success of that idea then and now, with over 2.5m visitors having visited that one osprey nest, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to that most visionary and maverick of nature conservationists, George Waterston. What he could never have grasped in the 1960s is how he set in motion the birth of a peculiarly British type of wildlife tourism founded upon controlled and managed access, local economic benefits, regional eco-cultural identity, membership recruitment opportunities for the common case and associated educational endeavours.
Scotland has willingly led the way, but that is not to be surprised at, with the greatest percentage of ‘wild land’ and greatest diversity of perceived iconic species. A 2010 Scottish Government study suggested the net economic impact of wildlife tourism in Scotland to be £65m, with £276m spent on 1.12m trips to observe wildlife and 2,763 FTE jobs supported by these activities. The Highlands and Islands were noted as the driving regions behind this boom in wildlife watching uk, generating £124m of tourism expenditure. The RSPB can now rightly boast that the presence of white-tailed (sea) eagles on Mull account for a minimum of 1.8% of total wildlife tourism spend and 4% of associated jobs in the country; as well as being worth £5-8m of tourist spend on the island, up from £1.4m in 2006. Back in the 1980s and 1990s it often seemed that our eNGOs were sometimes caught off guard by the huge public appeal of their nature reserves and watchpoints, they somehow seemed ill-prepared to be tourist attractions in their own right, open to the tourist gaze, and not just places of scientific research. How things have changed. Waves of British ecotourists, not only now seek international ecotourism destinations, but also seek domestic nature spectaculars, be they starling murmurations on The Levels which puts bums on beds in Somerset; dolphin watching at Chanonry Point near Inverness; visiting seabird cities from Shetland to Scilly; watching a real swan lake at wild swan feeds at WWT centres like Slimbridge and Welney. This is, in part, riding off the back of the clamour for access to wild nature from the BBC Springwatch millions, and increased disposable income and leisure time.
For the best of ecotourism destinations UK look no further than Aigas Field Centre near Beauly in Inverness-shire, founded on the drive of conservation hero Sir John Lister-Kaye (affectionately known as JLK), a man of sharp vision and keen ambition to bring nature and people closer together, inheriting the Peter Scott mantle. The wider Aigas experience blends skilled wildlife guiding, Highland hospitality, and educational and community work. Established in 1976, Aigas can lay claim to being the guiding light of a mature and wise domestic ecotourism, which others strive to follow in the private sector. Aigas not only engages and informs and excites, but also seeks to deeply connect its guests to the wild, both past and present. We need more JLKs across the country to seize the ecotourism baton and to work alongside our established public sector environmental NGOs to forge a brighter future for British wildlife, both accessible and valued.
Dr Rob Lambert
Dr Rob Lambert is Professor of Environmental History & Ecotourism at the University of Nottingham, as well as holding a Visiting Fellowship at the University of Western Australia. He is a birder, broadcaster and expedition ship lecturer.