Guest blog – The UK’s youth conservation movement is happening, and we’re already beginning to howl by Peter Cooper

IMG_7291Peter Cooper is a 20 year old amateur naturalist, writer, zoology student at the University of Exeter Cornwall Campus and avid badger watcher. He has written both whimsical nature writing and ‘proper’ environmental journalism on his personal blog and for The Independent, and is also the editor in chief of his university’s nature magazine ‘Life’. Always happier in the woods, when at home he is generally pursuing the natural history of his Romsey and the New Forest stomping grounds, with particular on-going studies of the local mammal populations. While still figuring out how to get there, he has set his future on progressing the rewilding movement within the UK, while attempting to win as many people as possible over to wildlife conservation through natural history writing and broadcasting. He is a committee member for ‘A Focus on Nature’, and is a mentee of Mark Avery through the programme.

“Where is the UK’s youth conservation movement, and what can be done to find it?” was the question posed by Danny Heptinstall on this blog a couple of months ago. And he has a point. You don’t tend to see legions of teenagers, students and twenty-somethings filling a nature reserve hide or, on a less passive note, taking to mass protest outside parliament each time another bizarre policy apparently hell-bent on destroying wildlife for profit is about to be passed.

The “oh, children aren’t getting into nature anymore”, “kids in the woods are rarer than Scottish wildcats” articles and pleas for help are chorused by every conservationist and their dog in the media these days (and yes, I’m also guilty). It is a serious issue, but thankfully a well known one as a result of the mass hollering. So I’m going to assume if you’re reading this blog, you’re familiar with the background reading, and perhaps reassuringly I’ll let you know this isn’t another repeat. If those pieces are slow-mo black and white films with sorrowful strings and piano, than what I’m sharing is a trumpet and drums victory march.

Because while ipod Izzy, PS3 Paul and X-box… Xavier(?) are cooped up inside, throughout the rest of the country there are legions of young people running through the woods to look for birds nests or watch badger setts, baiting for crabs in rock pools, falling out of trees and not caring, and so on in Enid Blyton-esque ecstasy. And they aren’t just being encouraged to do so on a visit to a National Trust estate. Yes, there may not be as many outside as in the golden age of the baby boomer’s childhood, but they’re there.

The reason it’s not so obvious is connection, or rather the distinct lack of it. So many children, teenagers and young people can relate to the feeling of being ‘the naturey one’ in a peer group, and generally dependent on which stage of life you’re at, this can either be a ‘quirky’ positive character trait, or something outside society’s norms and to be ‘weird’ and demeaned. Even in a lecture theatre of zoology students, it’s often easy to tell who’s genuinely passionate amongst those just doing the course because it sounded more entertaining than psychology.

But what if, like reconnecting isolated populations of a threatened species, you could get those far-distanced young naturalist to meet each other, talk, work together for the greater good of nature? The youth conservation movement is a straightforwardly simple concept, and I’m pleased to tell you it’s happening now, through ‘A Focus on Nature’.

We’re a network of naturalists, conservationists, scientists, photographers, filmmakers, artists, musicians, even a chocolate maker, all between the ages of roughly 16-30 (though we’re welcoming a lot more young folk on either side of this bracket). All spread over the country, but all wanting to take nature conservation into a bigger direction with a louder, fresher voice. Launched by creative director Lucy McRobert at Birdfair 2012, ‘AFON’ is fast becoming the youth conservation movement.

OK, well we’re not quite a ‘movement’ yet, depending on your usage of the word. We’re well known by many in the conservation sector, but for the time being there aren’t any mass marches or pressurisation for changes in the common agricultural policy.

But we’re well on our way towards it, if the rapid rate of growth in two years has shown. Over 60 ‘official’ members and nearly 400 in our extended, social-media based network; projects and workshops based around Poole Harbour’s wildlife, the Somerset Levels, young ornithologists and many others; and internships in the Scillies and Scotland. This year, to really give ‘yoof’ the say in where we go next, Lucy formed a steering committee all consisted of AFON members within their 20s, including conservationists Matt Williams, Beth Aucott, Simon Phelps and myself. Our first piece? AFON’s most ambitious, exciting project yet…

In just over two months time, two years of build-up will culminate in our first ever conference for young conservationists – ‘A Vision for Nature’. To be held over the 5th and 6th September at the University of Cambridge, it will be the opportunity for over 200 aspiring conservationists, from under 12s to university students, to hear from both professionals – NGO reps, land managers, filmmakers, writers, even a couple of celebs – and peers their own age on what’s going wrong in conservation at the moment. It will then be time for us – the youth conservation movement – to decide what we should be doing about it. Conservation is naturally fluid in practice. Insane, crazy ideas fifty years ago are now the norm. It’s time for the new insane, crazy ideas. Controversy and ambition will be guaranteed.

With support from the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and Conservation Careers, the aim is for Vision for Nature to really launch the natural youth we have in droves all over the country firmly into the spotlight, and to start a wild new era. And if young people are shown to champion nature to the public at large, then it’s more than likely our same peers who lost touch with wildlife or else never had it, ignoring it or deaming it weird or quirky, may begin to realise just how much more important it really is to our planet’s and our own wellbeing.

It may well have being a silent spring for nature conservation and, seemingly, the next generation due to protect it. But this summer at least is going out on a roar, and it’ll ring loud for many years yet.


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6 Replies to “Guest blog – The UK’s youth conservation movement is happening, and we’re already beginning to howl by Peter Cooper”

  1. AFON really is a brilliant group. I attended one of their conferences at the BTO headquarters and met up with loads of young birders and conservationists for the first time. They are always giving support and encouragement to me and my peer group.

  2. Hello from Ireland,

    Below is my comment regarding this mornings blog on a Conservation Matters Facebook forum I started last year for "younf Environmentalists".

    I find the youth Irish movement lethargic, limited and there is a profound lack of confidence and drive. Its a source of much frustration and motivation but the result is I take all my leads from the UK. I am constantly impressed my individuals such as Lucy Mc Robert, Matt Adam Williams, Pete Cooper and others.

    I have had major conservation successes locally within the Irish Midlands where I grew up and live and my current challenge is to build the skills and capacity of the interested locally so they can take control and push forward.

    We don't benefit in this country from a strange but impressive wider understanding of habitats and species, I'm not sure where this legacy arose within the UK but I am constantly surprised by the base level of awareness and knowledge within the wider public there. In Ireland you cannot "throw a stone" without it landing somewhere green, this gives rise to a mislead attitude that our environment, habitats and species must be "fine".

    My comments on "Irish Young Environmentalist page".....

    This is a strong guest blog on Mark Averys blog page. It highlights the efforts of "20 somethings" in the conservation movement in the UK. It resonates with me as "we" are trying to do the same thing, however modest our individual efforts. A couple of things I want to say about the Irish movement, I feel as conservationists we lack foresight, confidence and awareness (from the wider public) but I see these challenges as opportunities. We have larger challenges in many respects than our counterparts in the UK, "land" is seen very much as an agricultural commodity and any alternative use is seen as wasteful! The term "Natural Capital" (Ecosystem Services) is a very new term in this country and generally we have a fairly lax attitude regarding wildlife/habitat conservation, examples of which are too easy to find.

    Never the less we are not exposed to a few of the major barriers that the UK faces in Conservation terms, these include massive urban sprawl and land use pressures, a dangerous "gun lobby" (Driven Grouse shooting is one such example) and a huge "Branding" and competition war between the ENGOs which only results in wildlife loosing out. We can learn from the UKs mistakes and build the capacity early on to navigate future challenges before they come to pass. The movement is sufficiently small in this country what with a small bit of co-operation, effort and enthusiasm from across the sector we can make easy gains in the coming years.

    I do find the lack of uptake even by the "keyboard warrior" on this forum, designed and directed at the youthful/enthusiastic conservation minded worrying!! Is it a result of our economics? That we are too paranoid and busy scrambling for paid opportunities, that the very reason we gravitated towards a life of conservation work has been forgotten?

    Never waste a good disaster, we have opportunities, they are created by the lack of opportunities!


  3. When you use the word 'Scottish' Wildcat [like grouse moor when managed for only Red Grouse] where is the Cumbrian Wildcat which needs reintroducing. If we bring cats from Scotland people will say 'how can we reintroduce a Scottish species when our cats were exterminated! Was the Red Kite only a Welsh Red Kite? Was the Pine Marten Scottish also! The politics of nature!! That is why it so hard to get young people into nature. It comes with a risk.

  4. Many congratulations to all involved in A Focus on Nature. Its exactly what “youth” conservation has been crying out for for years – a genuine grassroots by youth, for youth, movement with the confidence to speak with its own voice, rather than the ever so slightly tokenistic way some of the big NGOs have traditionally engaged with” youth” in the hope of getting them to say what they want them to say. I look forward to A Focus on Nature making its voice known in the policy sphere in the future – you could absolutely have significant influence there.

  5. Pingback: Mark Avery Blog | Pete Cooper Wildlife

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