Peter 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.