From Rutland Water to the British Birdwatching Fair | Inside Tim Appleton’s wild career

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

Tim Appleton MBE (now retired) is well known as the warden of Rutland Water nature reserve in the UK and co-founder of the British Birdwatching Fair. Guest blogger Stephen Thompson talked to him about his interest in wildlife, where his career began, the importance of volunteering and much more but not forgetting the biggest conservation event in the world – Birdfair!

When did you first become interested in birds and was there someone that inspired you when you were younger?

My interest in birds started at an early age. My parents lived on a golf course in Bristol which gave me access to huge areas of woods. Unfortunately, I was one of those horrible little kids that collected the odd bird’s egg, [and] you learnt things that way as at the time there was no way of learning.

It was while doing this that really got me fired up and I started to become interested in all wildlife. There were Badger setts in the local woods as well as birds. Right from the beginning I realised I had passion not just for birds but all wildlife.

Sir Peter Scott who founded the Wildfowl and Wetlands trust at Slimbridge Wetland Centre was an amazing inspiration during my life, taking his mentorship on board in putting people and birds together. If you cannot educate and keep people on our side, then the birds and wildlife have no chance.

Image by Airwolfhound on Flickr.

You are well known as warden/reserve manager at Rutland Water but where did your career start, and did you always want to work in conservation?

I went to school a little further away and on the way, there was a local wildlife park (Westbury Wildlife Park) where I got the opportunity to volunteer. I met a lot of people from Slimbridge WWT reserve.

I have always had a particular interest in ducks, geese and swans and my parents used to take me to Slimbridge where I could watch the birds. It was there that I had the thought that one day I could sit in my own garden and look out over the water.

[Steve: I suggested to Tim that dreams do come true as we are now sitting in the garden overlooking the shore of Rutland water on a lovely sunny morning. Tim agreed but did say that you have to work for them, but it is worth doing.]

My first job was at Slimbridge working with Sit Peter Scott for 5 years as deputy curator.

“I always dreamt of doing something that I personally felt driven to do & not being driven by other people, I had brilliant parents that did not push me in any particular direction. I passionately believe in what I wanted to do which was to help people and help wildlife.”

Swans at Rutland Water. Photo by Airwolfhound on Flickr.

What made you decide to apply for the job at Rutland Water even before it had become a nature reserve and why do you think it has been so successful as a nature reserve?

I had a brilliant job at Slimbridge but then this job at Rutland Water came up with the scope of doing something on a scale that had never ever been attempted before.

On a much smaller scale, there was a guy called Dr Geoffrey Harrison who had done some work on creating conservation areas on gravel pits and I spent a week with him learning about some of his work. This was an incredible opportunity and hundreds of people applied for the job – landowners, ex-servicemen wanting to do something in their retirement and many more.

I was given the job, but one thing I remember was arriving at the office of The Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust ( a rather small office) and speaking to the administrator who gave me an ordinance survey map and said, “Right, Tim, it is all yours, it’s somewhere over in Rutland”.

From that day on I have been pretty lucky with the Trust to have been given a pretty free hand to develop. I am possibly slightly different from some reserve managers in that I have an entrepreneurial streak in me somewhere and I could see all sorts of opportunities ahead. The transformation in the first 5 years was incredible:

  • I planted over 100,000 trees.

  • I organised working parties.

  • I set up volunteer schemes.

  • I designed where the hides were going to go.

  • I built nature trails and lagoons.

Rutland Water. Image by Iain Merchant on Flickr.

When I first started there was a lot of competition from other users of the reservoir such as sailing and fishing. The local water authority saw an opportunity to develop the site for recreation, but I had to fight to maintain the wildlife/conservation area. A reservoir users’ panel was established, and zoning policies were set up to section of parts of the reservoir for different users and because of this the birds soon started to make it their home.

Some Rutland Water facts:

  • The reservoir was built in 1970, has a perimeter of 37km and contains 124 million cubic metres of water.

  • Tim started work in 1975.

  • It started flooding in 1977 & reached top water line in 1979.

  • 15km of the shoreline are set aside for conservation.

  • It has a huge range of habitats: mature woodland, ancient woodland, new woodland, coppice woodland, old & new meadows, small ponds, lagoons, and the whole reservoir.

  • Rutland Water receives 100,000 visitors a year.

  • In 1982 it became a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest)

  • In 1992 it became a RAMSAR & SPA (Special Protection Area under European legislation).

(A Ramsar Site is a wetland site designated to be of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. The Convention on Wetlands, known as the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental environmental treaty established in 1971 by UNESCO and coming into force in 1975).

Rutland Water is known as the home of the British Birdwatching Fair. Could you explain what it is, how you first came up with the idea and how successful you think it has been?

Like many things in my life, this came down to seeing an opportunity. I went to the game fair one day (an event for countryside pursuits like shooting and fishing), but on walking round I realised that there was very little to cater for the birdwatching industry which I was heavily into at the time, so I thought why not do something?

To start with I came up with a new word, Birdfair – but what next? With no finances available from the wildlife trust or myself, how exactly would I set this up? I could not do it on my own; I would need some help.

I found a partner to help with the organisation and to come up with thoughts and ideas (Martin Davies from the RSPB), but a commercial connection was needed too, to help with the financial side of things. In Focus and Swarovski, two optical companies, came on board as sponsors to use Birdfair as a showcase to demonstrate their equipment.

We had 3 goals when first talking about Birdfair:

  1. Provide a shop window for the birding industry.

  2. Provide a place where people can meet and do some networking.

  3. Do something positive for conservation.

In the 30 years that Birdfair has been going we have raised £5 million towards conservation projects run by Birdlife International; that money was then invested and went onto raise a further £35 million.

The British Birdwatching Fair is now considered to be the biggest wildlife/ecotourism fair in the world. Its success, I think is down to a very small team of people organising it, and not too many chiefs. I have been retired for 2 years but I am still working on Birdfair 3-4 days a week and more if I need to.

“My biggest satisfaction is that there are now Birdfairs all over the world”

In April 2020, the Trust decided to terminate my contract and so I am no longer involved in the Birdfair at Rutland Water. This gave me the opportunity to launch a dream I have had to go global and inspire people across our wonderful planet to engage with the wildlife on their doorstep.

Global Birding’s inaugural event took place in October 2020 and set a world record when 33000 people recorded 7120 species of birds on a single day! We also raised £25,000 for Birdlife International to Stop Illegal Bird Trade. Global Birding will be holding two more event in May And October 2021.

Image by Birdfair.

What part to volunteers play in conservation?

“Without volunteers we might as well go home tomorrow”. Volunteers are key to all areas of conservation. Here at the reserve, we have 600 volunteers on the books and last year 376 just for Birdfair. All the work they do equates to around 7,000 hrs which would cost approximately £80-90,000. If I had to pay that out each year then conservation would be the loser.

How important do you think teaching young people about conservation is? And what advice would you give to anyone wishing to pursue a career in conservation?

Recently at Birdfair we have recognised the importance of young people getting positively involved in conservation. I see far too many young people going into conservation and coming away with a degree but with very little practical experience. I want people to be much more involved in practical work.

“Why do you need a degree to manage a nature reserve? I do not have one! I just have a passion for doing what I do”.

We have a careers day at Birdfair where young people wanting to work in conservation can come along and talk to the experts and find out more about what it takes to get on in this line of work. We always try to encourage young people at Rutland. We have a work experience programme for trainees working as a trainee reserve officer for a year finding out about the job and getting the practical experience needed to help take them on to the career that they want.

Photo by