THEY MAY have been born 150 years apart, but Charles Waterton and Sir David Attenborough are both arguably among Britain’s most celebrated naturalists.
And now, the broadcaster could be the saviour of the eccentric explorer’s West Yorkshire home, which is under the threat of HS2.
Sir David has backed a campaign to have the Walton Hall estate recognised for its cultural importance by the United Nations.
He said he hoped the estate, where Waterton was born and returned to after exploring South America in the early 1800s, would be made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Campaigners believe UNESCO status would prevent the government from running a high-speed railway line through the site, where Waterton set up the world’s first nature reserve in the 1820s, as part of the HS2 rail project.
Sir David pledged his support for the campaign in a letter to Wakefield Council.
He wrote: “Walton Hall is an extremely important site in the history of nature conservation worldwide.
“It is, arguably, the first tract of land anywhere in modern times to be protected, guarded and maintained as a nature reserve.”
Waterton, a skilled taxidermist who preserved many of the animals he encountered on his travels, built a wall around the estate in the 1820s and protected wildlife as the industrial revolution began to pollute the countryside.
Sir David, who opened Wakefield Museum on a visit to the city in 2013 specifically because of his boyhood interest in Waterton, said: “He welcomed visitors from the neighbouring towns that were springing up around the estate, provided they did not carry a gun. He gave sixpence to anyone who brought him a live hedgehog so that he could release it in the park.
“He created a special sandbank to attract sand martins and a stone tower with sixty special nesting holes for birds, each with a loose stone at the back so that visitors could look inside and see how the birds were getting on.
“It was a pioneering demonstration of how the natural world could be protected in the face of a rising tide of industrial pollution.
“I hope very much UNESCO will recognise the importance of the Walton estate by declaring it a World Heritage Site.”
The 250-acre estate includes picturesque parkland, the moated Walton Hall and Waterton Park Hotel, which strongly opposes “the very destructive route” HS2 proposes to take through the parkland.
Should it be afforded World Heritage status, the land would be protected by law.
The campaign is led by environmentalist Paul Dainton, who is now establishing a committee to begin the process of nominating the estate to UNESCO.
In the UK, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for nominating sites for World Heritage status.
Gaining approval could take as long as ten years.
Mr Dainton said: “There are a number of obstacles along the way, but David Attenborough’s support, which is very unusual, is a real boost. Suddenly people are sitting up and taking notice.
“It is crucial that this scheme progresses as quickly as possible as the proposed HS2 rail scheme will pass through the park close to the world-famous Charles Waterton’s grave, totally despoiling the world’s first nature reserve.”
Council chief executive Joanne Roney said: “I am delighted that David has written to the leader of the council to express his strong support for the proposal to make Walton Hall a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The council will do all it can to support the bid to raise the profile of Walton Hall and to protect its heritage for future generations.”
Walton Parish Council said it was calling for separate protected status for the estate as part of its Neighbourhood Plan.
Ben Ruse, HS2 Lead spokesman said: “We don’t know yet how close HS2 will come to the Walton Hall Estate as no final decision has been made on the route between Birmingham and Leeds. The Department for Transport has said it will set out how it plans to take the second phase forward later this year.”