Digging the original pond at Sunnybank nature reserveDigging the original pond at Sunnybank nature reserve, photo courtesy of Roger Butterfield

The Trust was born on 17th April 1985, when a small group of ecological enthusiasts formed themselves into the Sheffield City Wildlife Group.

Under the leadership of Mike Wild (a lecturer at Sheffield City Polytechnic), the Group's first success was to persuade the City Council to allow them to develop a 'show-piece urban nature park' at Sunnybank – a tiny (0.8 ha.) site off Ecclesall Road near the city centre. Everything was done by volunteers, including many from the local Council flats, who appreciated a green space on their doorstep.

Other early projects included development of the Five Weirs Walk along the River Don, and the nature reserve at Blackburn Meadows (a former sewage works). A regular Newsletter kept members informed of plans and helped raise awareness of the potential biodiversity value of open green spaces in the urban environment. Membership was still very small (under 100).

However, in 1987 the scale of the Group's operations shifted up a notch, with a grant of £12,000 from the Nature Conservation Council to conduct an Inner City Habitat Survey. In the same year, the Group won a bid to the Government's Community Programme which enabled it to employ paid staff for the first time, training 21 unemployed people for NVQs in wildlife management issues. Welcome national recognition came in 1989 when the Project took first prize in the annual UK2000 Award for the best environmental project in Britain - out of 130 entries from all round the country. The judges were particularly impressed by the Project’s record - over 60% of trainees had found permanent employment.

In 1991 the first full time Director (Ros Stokes) was appointed, and the Group became a fully-fledged Wildlife Trust affiliated to the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. In 1997 Rob Stoneman became Director, and under his leadership the Trust's scale of operations increased dramatically, through participation in urban regeneration schemes funded by the Single Regeneration Budget.
Whereas in 1996/7 the Trust's income was £122,000, by 2003/4 it had risen to £2.68 million, with a payroll of 93 fte employees.

The size of the senior staff team was increased in 1998 when Nigel Doar was appointed Head of Conservation, and within a couple of years he had persuaded the City Council to lease eleven nature reserves to the Trust (including Wyming Brook and Blackamoor – two sites of Special Scientific Interest), and had successfully bid for a grant of a million pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund to manage them in a style favourable to wildlife. Nigel Doar became the Trust's third Director in 2001. In that same year a fine new HQ was purchased - an ecologically refurbished listed building (a former church hall), surrounded by a wildlife garden with a pond.

The major achievement of the last few years has been to manage the down-sizing necessitated by the reduction in European regeneration funding from 2005. Sufficient alternative funding has been secured so that SWT continues to be Sheffield’s leading environmental charity, with an annual turnover of about £2m. Membership continues to rise (currently just over 5,000 - or 1% of the city’s population). Moreover, commitments have recently been extended beyond the city boundary to neighbouring Rotherham, whose Council invited the Trust in 2008 to undertake the landscaping and maintenance of a major flood alleviation scheme on the River Don at Centenary Riverside, and to take it on as a nature reserve - a scheme which won the Flood Defence category at the UK Waterways Renaissance Awards (2010), and was commended in the Natural Environment category.

The Trust continues to experiment and innovate with new approaches to engaging people with the natural world and securing the resources to make South Yorkshire a more natural place. In 2007 it established a trading subsidiary (WildScapes), and in 2010 it embarked on a campaign to celebrate its 25th anniversary by purchasing more than 400 acres of wildlife-rich and historic woodland – Greno Woods, in north Sheffield. The Trust’s early ambitions are still alive as it tries to secure support for its vision of a Living Landscape from the Peak District in the West to the floodplain of the river Don in the East.

Patrick Vaughan
13 September 2011