Martin Spray is one of the lower-profile Chief Executives in the wildlife conservation business so it was very good to see his name in the New Year honours list.
Martin told me: ‘On a personal basis I’m both overwhelmed and proud. But I’m a part of an amazing team at WWT and it is wonderful to see nature conservation recognised in the honours system in this way.’
Having spent the first half of his career in the government sector Martin worked for WWF (1988-1991) and then became the first CEO of the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (1991-2004). Towards the end of that time the Wildlife Trusts were going through a bit of turmoil and Martin stepped in to be the Acting CEO of the whole kit and caboodle for almost a year.
Martin arrived at Slimbridge in 2004 and has led WWT ever since. I remember having a quick chat with Martin before he headed off to Slimbridge when I commented on the slightly strange nature of the organisation. WWT was founded, and for many years run, by Peter Scott, and it mirrored Scott’s own personal interests.
If you were setting up an organisation today I doubt whether it would be focussing on ducks, geese and swans and funded to a large extent by the public visiting fewer than a dozen locations dotted around the UK.
But Martin has always played the hand dealt to him with skill and in all his roles he has been a skilled and dependable manager. WWT is now emerging as a force in nature conservation again with its work on saving spoon-billed sandpipers and Madagascan pochard, its role in crane reintroduction and its campaign against the use of wildlife-poisoning lead ammunition. It’s certainly not just a bunch of duck-zoos – it is a forward-thinking wetland conservation organisation.
Although you won’t hear much of it, this is a difficult time to be running an NGO. Financially, people feel insecure and it is the public who pay for most of wildlife conservation through their memberships and their purchases. I’m sure this has been a difficult year for many NGOs and I would guess that the poor weather, the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee probably affected visitor numbers and spending.
I renewed my membership of WWT very recently and was impressed by the efficient way that the staff dealt with my particular request.
I am not a fan of the ‘honours system’ but I always scan the lists to see whether anyone I know and like, or anyone I know and dislike, has been recognised by the Establishment. I was very pleased to see Martin Spray’s name and to see him awarded a CBE. Martin is greatly liked, admired and respected in conservation circles – he is just the type of person who deserves a gong.
When Martin heads back to work after the holiday break he should sit in his office, formerly the studio of the great Sir Peter Scott, and look out of the picture window at the Bewick’s swans on the Rushy Pool and take a few minutes to enjoy the feeling of satisfaction that his CBE should provide. And then, no doubt, he will mentally roll up his sleeves and throw himself back into the issues and worries associated with running a wildlife charity, and a slightly quirky one, in times of austerity.