x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

UK to build education centre in memory of UAE wildlife scholar

The Simon Aspinall Wildlife Education Centre is being planned by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust at its Cley Marshes reserve in eastern England, close to Mr Aspinall’s home.

Simon Aspinall, a leading UAE conservationist who died late last year, is to be commemorated by a major education centre at one of England’s top nature reserves, Cley Marshes. Courtesy Gary Brown
Simon Aspinall, a leading UAE conservationist who died late last year, is to be commemorated by a major education centre at one of England’s top nature reserves, Cley Marshes. Courtesy Gary Brown

DUBAI // The life of a scholar who spent 15 years studying and working to protect the UAE’s wildlife is to be honoured with an education centre in his name.

Work will begin next year on the Simon Aspinall Wildlife Education Centre, which is being set up by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust at its Cley Marshes reserve in eastern England, close to Aspinall’s home.

When it is finished late next year, it will meet “a growing demand for information, education and events from the 110,000 visitors to Cley Marshes each year”, the trust said.

The author of several influential books, including Breeding Birds of the UAE, and a vast number of papers and reports for specialist publications, Aspinall was instrumental in bringing the birds of the UAE to an international audience.

He died in 2011, at the age of 53, from motor neurone disease.

Peter Hellyer, a founder member of the Emirates Bird Records Committee (EBRC) and a long-time collaborator and friend, said the marshes had been one of Aspinall’s favourite places since his teenage years, and building a centre for visitors was a project he “was very keen on”.

“Simon wanted to do something that would enlarge the facilities for educating people,” he said. “It is very appropriate because of his great interest in communicating knowledge of wildlife and conservation.”

The centre is one of two projects being launched by the trust. The second involves the purchase of Pope’s Marsh, a further stretch of coastal wetlands to integrate into its existing coastal reserves.

The land will be restored and habitats such as salt marsh, grazing marsh, reed bed and pools will be integrated into neighbouring nature reserves at Cley and Salthouse.

The trust hopes this will create a network of internationally important habitats for endangered birds.

The total cost of the projects is estimated at Dh15.6 million. The trust and other donors, including the EBRC, of which Aspinall was a former chairman, raised Dh4.8m and a grant of Dh9m from the UK Heritage Lottery Fund was awarded at the end of last month.

Despite a shortfall of Dh1.8m, the funds are sufficient for the trust to go ahead with the project, said Brendan Joyce, its chief executive.

“We must now start the next leg of this journey, which is to buy Pope’s Marsh, commence the restoration work and start work on the Simon Aspinall Wildlife Education Centre,” he said.

It is hoped the centre will help the trust to establish “a diverse programme of events and educational activities for families, visitors, groups and local communities” that will inspire appreciation among the public of why the area and similar habitats need to be conserved.

Planned eucational displays include a special section on the environment of the UAE. Details are still being worked out between the Aspinall’s family and EBRC, said Mr Hellyer.

A former employee of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, Aspinall won the Sheikh Mubarak bin Mohammed Prize for Natural History.

“Simon did an enormous amount related to conservation in the UAE,” said Mr Hellyer. “He raised the discussion on conservation issues here to a higher level, in terms of scientific research.”

vtodorova@thenational.ae