Environmental scientist and international conservationist Martin Holdgate grew up in Blackpool and took childhood holidays in the Eden Valley. A biologist by profession, with a doctorate in insect physiology from Cambridge, he taught for 10 years at Manchester, Durham and Cambridge universities – while undertaking expeditions to the remote Tristan da Cunha islands in the South Atlantic, where he served as Chief Biologist of the British Antarctic Survey.

He then became the research director for the Nature Conservancy Council, the national agency responsible for wildlife conservation (today's Natural England). In 1970, a career change took him to Whitehall to coordinate action against environmental pollution, where he became Chief Scientist and head of research in the Department of the Environment and the senior Civil Servant responsible for environment protection and conservation. At a time when environmental concern grew world-wide, Martin Holdgate was UK delegate to several international organisations including the United Nations Environment Programme, chairing their Governing Council in the early 1980s.

In 1988 he became Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (sometimes called the World Conservation Union). This unique body brings together Governments, Government Agencies and Non-Governmental organizations. It produces the famous Red Lists of endangered species and the United Nations list of National Parks and Protected Areas, and also advises UNESCO on 'natural sites' put forward by governments, as the Lake District may be, for the World Heritage List.

Since ‘retiring’ and being knighted in 1994, Martin Holdgate has served as President of the Zoological Society of London and of the Freshwater Biological Association, a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, co-Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests and Secretary of the High-Level Board on Sustainable Development advising the UN Secretary General. He has lived in Cumbria since 2000.