On Friday 5th and Saturday 6th September over 100 young conservationists descended on Cambridge, joined by many established professionals, to discuss their Vision for Nature. Over the course of the weekend friendships have been forged, contacts established, ideas formulated, minds inspired and hearts impassioned.
I’ve already written about the many fascinating topics explored on Day 1 so now I’ll attempt to do the same for the final day.
After a welcome from Lucy and Matt it was straight into the first series of workshops and talks
- Debate: What colour is nature? Politics in Nature Conservation. Chaired by Matt Williams (Conference Organiser and Committee member, A Focus on Nature). Panel: Elisabeth Whitebread (Green Party), Oliver Cooper (Chairman, COnservatice Future), Rose Dickinson (Parlimentary officer, rspb) and Julian Huppert (MP for Cambridge)
- Workshop: Story-telling (Part 1), Alex Farrow
- Workshop: Online Communications, James Borrell
- Workshop: What can conservation NGOs do differently to engage with young members? The Wildlife Trusts
As I’d been too caught up in the debates on the previous day to attend any of the workshops I decided to lurk in the background, hopefully listening in to bits of all three whilst tweeting from the AFON account. As I should probably have guessed it didn’t quite go as planned. After looking around and seeing everyone getting stuck into the activities in the engagement and storytelling workshops, I perched at the back of James Borrell’s Online Communications workshop and then couldn’t pry myself away. I’m a huge fan of Twitter and obviously keep this blog, so it was interesting to hear what someone else had to say about the power of putting things online. James was really passionate about getting people to share their stories – ‘if you have something worthwhile to write about it is your responsibility to conservation to share it’ and not to be afraid of a bit of self-publicity.
Next up was a debate tackling the very popular subject of engaging children with nature; ‘Teen Wolf: Unleashing the wild connection in children’. The session was chaired by the wonderful Stephen Moss (Tv producer and Author) and he shared the stage with Brenna Boyle (Founder, Wild Capital), Ross Crates (Ecologist and Ornithologist, BSG Ecology), Sarah Blackwell (CEO, Forest Schools) and Derek Niemann (Youth Magazines Editor, rspb). Ross started discussions with the point that ‘ every child has an inherent interest in nature, it just needs to be facilitated’ and each of the panellists brought up many barriers that prevent children connecting with the natural world. These included the fear of strangers, technological distractions, no time to have a hobby, legislation and a lack of education. It was highlighted that it is vital for children to have someone to show the the natural world, that it is okay to step on the grass, climb up a tree or handle that bug – ‘We can’t force people to love and enjoy nature but we can encourage it’ and we need to make sure that this is happening, through such things as Forest Schools but also by us all individually doing our own little bit to inspire the next generation.
After lunch it was time for the final choice of sessions:
- Debate: ‘The Lie of the Land: Land Management in the UK’. Chaired by Aiden Lonergan (Futurescapes Programme Manager, rspb) Panel: Simon Tonkin (Conservation Manager, Conservation Grade), Jane Rickson (Soil Science and Conservation, Cranfield University) and Robert Law (Farmer).
- Workshop: Story-telling (Part 2), Alex Farrow
- Workshop: Introduction to Campaigning, Tom Baker
- Workshop: Waxwinging Lyrical: nature writing and environmental journalism, Peter Cooper
I seriously considered going to Peter’s workshop but with my traineeship being in practical conservation I thought it would be beneficial for me to sit in on the discussion of land management. One of the main issues seemed to be reconciling short term economic gain with long term environmental conservation. Farmers are essentially running a business, under pressure from many areas, including supermarkets, and changing schemes and grants for conservation work can put people off applying for them. The media also don’t help the issue as they are always looking for a good story making it difficult for each side to get their points across and change peoples minds. The session ended with an emphasis on the need for people to get talking and working together.
Everyone was then brought back together for a session on ‘Our Vision for Nature: future conservation challenges’. On stage were people from all backgrounds: Susan Jones (AFON member and Volunteer Conservationist), Simon Phelps (AFON committee member and Youth Engagement Officer, Warwickshire Wildlife Trust), Matt Williams (Conference organiser, AFON Committee Member and many other things), Jeff Knott (Head of Conservation Policy, WWT) and Ross Crates (Ecologist and Ornithologist, BSG Ecology). Although each of them had come from a different organisation, whilst they were on that stage they were discussing their own views and what they personally felt are the big challenges faced by conservation. Wanting to get stuck right in there I was first to get my hand up with a question and asked what each of them individually felt was the biggest problem faced by conservation.
Ross answered that apathy was the biggest problem. There is a huge amount of negative press surrounding conservation and the constant doom and gloom turns people off. Going about it a different way, highlighting the positives and success could get people to care. Susan, Matt and Simon all agreed that a lack of connection with the natural world was the biggest challenged faced right now. Jeff thinks that we are too comfortable settling for the win-win situations and that we need to take on the difficult challenges. It may upset some people but the public want to see their charities fight for wildlife. We, as conservationists, should be prepared to annoy more people.
With input from the audience topics such as the international question – should we focus on conservation in the UK or abroad, the gender balance, the role of nature reserves, Patron Saints of conservation and politics were covered.
Of course the discussion ended with each of them sharing their vision for nature with us. Susan wants to encourage and engage more young people and give them the skills to engage other so the whole youth movement can grow. Simon wants to live in a world where he doesn’t have to explain why poisoning a Hen Harrier is wrong, and to see AFON grow and make a difference. Matt hopes to see the most connected generation to nature yet and a chance for young people to lead. Jeff’s Vision is an AFON conference where we don’t need to use youth in the description, and a world where politicians spend as much time discussing nature as they do the the NHS. Ross wants every child to have the opportunity to connect to nature.
Throughout the course of the weekend we’d been getting people to share their own vision for nature, by writing it on a piece of paper and sharing it with us through photos and social media. Each of them was different yet all were a vision of hope for the future and you can find some on Twitter using #VisionforNature
To round the weekend off there was meant to be a summary of some of the workshops, to share what had been learnt with those who hadn’t attended, but at that point a little bit of sabotage occurred. Peter Cooper summed up his workshop and the use and need of nature writing beautifully. Matt Collis followed Peter, and announced that he wasn’t going to talk about his workshop as planned, but instead talk about a workshop he’d attended. Tom Mason then took to the stage and informed the audience that he wasn’t going to talk about the workshops at all. Instead he was going to talk about two very special people who had made the whole weekend possible; Lucy and Matt. A few of us had been in cahoots and as Toms beautifully eloquent speech reduced Lucy to tears, myself and a few others presented her and Matt with small presents as a tiny way of showing our appreciation for all their hard work. Despite having full time jobs, and in Matt’s case not even living in this country for most of the last year, the two of them had managed to put together a hugely successful weekend and it was only fair that they received recognition and thanks for all of their hard work. I hope they are both extremely proud of their achievements!
It was then time for Lucy and Matt to round up the whole event and tell us about the Vision for Nature report they plan to produce as a follow up for the weekend. Full of new knowledge, ideas and optimism we all headed off to our respective home, filled with the knowledge that we can, each of us, make a difference and the feeling that with all our passion combined, together we can achieve amazing things.
So I’ve covered the basics of the conference, and hopefully provided those of you that couldn’t attend an idea of some of the topics we covered. This is just the bare bones of the weekend and there is plenty more I want to write about!