Happy Birthday Sir David

Sir David Attenborough 2015

Sir David Attenborough celebrates his 90th birthday on May 8. Butterfly Conservation (BC) chief executive Dr Martin Warren charts the broadcaster's enormous contribution to the charity.

"Sir David Attenborough has been an inspiration to millions across the globe with his passion for wildlife and for his unique ability to bring the awesome wonders of wildlife straight into our living rooms. Amongst his many other commitments, he is a passionate supporter of Butterfly Conservation and has been our President since 1999. When he was invited to take over from the late Gordon Beningfield, he replied “I can think of nothing more delightful.” The following are some recollections of how the great man has helped us over the last 18 years.

The first official BC function that Sir David attended was a Large Blue day in July 1988 to celebrate the sponsorship by ICI who had become the first Corporate Species Champion of the recently launched UK Biodiversity Action Plan. As one of our few globally endangered species, it was highly significant that ICI became involved in the conservation of the Large Blue, spurred on by the then Minister for the Environment, John Gummer. The sponsorship was critical in allowing a comprehensive survey of former sites and of the Large Blue, which had become extinct in the UK since 1979 and had been re-introduced successfully to one site since 1983. The survey highlighted potentially suitable sites in the Polden Hills and Cotswolds where it has since been re-introduced and now thrives in one of conservation’s great success stories.

It was after that event that BC’s Chairman at the time, Harold Hughes, invited Sir David to become President and start a long association with the charity that continues to the present day.

In July 1999, Sir David opened a major extension to our reserve at Magdalen Hill Down in Hampshire. Here, we had restored 13 ha of chalk grassland from former arable land in an ambitious and pioneering restoration programme from former arable land. He was duly impressed and said “This is a red letter day in the history of Butterfly Conservation, because what you have is a new gem in your landscape.”

In 2001, he wrote a moving foreword to BC’s landmark book The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland, which documented the perilous state of butterflies at the end of the Millennium. After praising the volunteers and experts who contributed, he says the prophetic phrase “Like canaries in the coalmine they can give us warnings of environmental dangers.”

Also in 2001, he helped us launch a series of Regional Action Plans for butterflies and moths at the House of Commons, with the then new Environment Minister, Michael Meacher. This was a pivotal time for BC as we then had a blueprint for how we would tackle the enormous decline of butterflies at a regional level, working with our local Branches and volunteers.

By this time, BC was getting seriously interested in moth conservation and in 2006 Sir David launched the first ever State of Britain’s Moths report. In the foreword, he said the he hoped that it would “spur concerted action to save moths, not just for themselves, but also for the many species that depend on them or share their habitats, including ourselves.”

The following year, BC raised almost £1m to start a Moths Count project to raise awareness of moths and bring together millions of records to map their distribution and trends. Sir David launched the project at the Zoological Society in London and entered into the spirit of the occasion by posing with various moths and assorted children to show how beautiful and important moths are.

In 2008, BC celebrated its 40th Anniversary by launching Save Our Butterflies Week at the Natural History Museum. Once again Sir David happily shook hands, chatted easily with the Trustees and leading volunteers, and gave interviews to the attending media. 

Every 3-4 years, BC holds an international Symposium and in 2010, Sir David graced us with his presence and played the audience superbly by saying how important it was to have a sound scientific basis to conservation. He said that they were the real heroes. Everyone was on cloud nine for the next few days!

Later in 2010, Sir David helped us launched a major new corporate partnership with Marks and Spencer, who had agreed to sponsor our new Big Butterfly Count. At the launch he praised M&S for their support and the innovative work they were doing to become an environmentally friendly retailer. Sir David has helped us launch the count every year since, getting up early to attend press launches and spend hours in front of the camera explaining why it is so important that we care form the natural world.

Thanks to his help, the Count has engaged almost 150,000 people and become probably the largest regular insect count in the world, I think this is my over-riding impression of Sir David. Once he has committed to an event, nothing is too much bother. Whether it is repeating the same message to 10 different film crews, shaking hands with dignitaries, praising scientists and volunteers, being pulled hither and thither, and posing with assorted Lepidoptera. He does it all cheerfully and with good humour. He is an extremely humble and self-effacing man and a truly wonderful human being.

All of us at Butterfly Conservation wishes him a very happy 90th birthday and send him enormous thanks for all he has done to help butterflies and moths, and inspire us to take care of the natural world."