Where is the UK’s Youth Conservation Movement?

So below I’ve written a few thoughts on how the conservation movement might better engage with people between the ages of 18-25. It’s possible I might be wrong about what I’m saying… but the important issue for me is that we start debating how we are going to get more young people involved in conservation, rather than simply moaning about their absence. Please let me know what you think.

Where is the UK’s Youth Nature Conservation Movement?

Young people are at the heart of any movement. Not only do they guarantee the future of a cause, they provide an unparalleled source of energy and ideas that are essential for a movement to reach its full potential. So where is the UK’s Youth Conservation Movement, and what can be done to find it?

A movement is defined as a “group of people working together to advance their shared political, social or artistic ideas”. With the increasing corporatisation of UK conservation NGOs it may not feel like it, but nature conservation is a movement, an incredibly successful movement that has fundamentally changed the way society views the world. But despite its past achievements, I believe the UK nature conservation movement needs to begin a period of self-reflection and ask itself for how long will the success continue? And could we be achieving more with the resources available to us now? As I discuss below, answers to both these questions can be found in the state of the UK youth nature conservation movement.

The Future of UK Nature Conservation

So will our movement’s success continue into the future? I would answer no.

Justifying this response, I believe within 30 years, the UK nature conservation movement is at real risk of losing its hard-won influence on society. Not because of changing political considerations or because our opponents will have become stronger, but rather, because there simply won’t be enough people left to keep the movement going at its current strength. And, as a 24 year-old birder/naturalist who has been involved in nature conservation most of his life; I believe I have a greater authority than many to make such a statement.

As far as I can see, there simply are not enough young people who have the same aspirations, ideals and knowledge of older conservationists, to keep the current movement going. Without new cohorts of knowledgeable and passionate young people, I believe the movement will likely be impacted in three ways:

The quality of professional conservationists may be reduced. There are thousands of positions in the UK’s statutory and non-statutory conservation organisations. In the future, I believe there may not be enough skilled and passionate people with a knowledge and appreciation of the diversity of UK species to fill these roles. Not only will this prevent the movement from achieving its full potential, it may also prevent the movement from developing further and achieving even greater success.

The numbers of knowledgeable amateurs will likely decline. This could reduce the coverage and quality of national biodiversity surveys, and not just for the more challenging and niche taxa. In addition, the critical mass of knowledgeable amateur naturalists/conservationists – who are essential for effective local conservation actions – could be lost. These are the people who voluntarily manage small reserves, challenge unsuitable local developments and recognise when an undesignated site is in need of protection. Additionally, this could further reduce the number of people able to inspire future generations of conservationists.

The numbers of committed volunteers will probably fall. Committed volunteers may not have the knowledge of British wildlife to initiate effective conservation actions, but they still have a passion for wildlife and will readily contribute to the causes started by others. These are the people who bring specialist skills to both local and national campaigns, as well as the manpower to undertake conservation actions. They are essential for running grassroots organisations and in helping the conservation movement connect to the wider public. These are also the people who provide considerable financial support to the movement. The more the movement loses such people, the weaker the movement becomes.

Strengthening the Movement Now

I believe young people possess five qualities that together give them a unique potential to contribute to the present-day UK nature conservation movement: high levels of passion and enthusiasm, a relative lack of family or financial commitments, considerable amounts of free time, comparatively high levels of disposable income, and an outlook on life that has yet to be overly constrained by the system around them

Combined, these qualities allow young people to devote a higher proportion of their time, energy and money to conservation, providing a greater return for conservationists looking to train and mentor new staff and volunteers. These qualities also allow young people to come together more easily, helping the formation of communities that can become the bedrock of the UK nature conservation movement. These qualities also allow young people to devise novel ways of working, especially when it comes to communicating and marketing the nature conservation message.

I would never argue the UK nature conservation movement should be led by its youth. But given the benefits young people can bring, wouldn’t the movement be stronger if more were involved? Couldn’t we be achieving more with the resources we have now, if only we were able to mobilise a youth nature conservation movement?

The Scale of the Problem

But it’s all very well highlighting that a movement could be stronger and more secure if it had a flourishing youth component. But does UK nature conservation really lack a strong youth movement? As far as I am concerned, the UK nature conservation is lacking any youth nature conservation movement.

But many conservationists disagree with me. They ask, aren’t there always dozens if not hundreds of applicants for every conservation job? Aren’t university conservation courses over-subscribed? Seemingly contradictory, I would answer yes to both these questions, but to just look at the numbers is to miss the real issue.

There are thousands of students enrolled on hundreds of conservation courses* at dozens of institutions across the UK. Most of these students will be between 18 and 25. Yet, despite this small army of seemingly engaged youth, how often have you seen a group of young people, on their own initiative, visiting your local nature reserve to appreciate wildlife? How often have you seen a local conservation project run by young people? And how often have you had an insightful conversation with a young person about the future of UK nature conservation? I bet it wasn’t as many times as you’d expect given the thousands of young people on these courses. Especially once you consider the thousands of young people that have recently graduated or are about to begin their studies.

So yes, conservation courses are full of young people and, once graduated, they are applying for jobs. But many of these young people sure aren’t part of the UK nature conservation movement.

Why aren’t many Young People part of the Movement?

In my opinion, the UK nature conservation movement is failing to engage with young people of all ages. Different age ranges within the broad category of “youth” have different needs, and new strategies are needed to improve engagement with all ages of young people. While I acknowledge improved engagement is needed for all ages, for the remainder of this article, I will focus on a group of young people I believe are particularly under-engaged; despite having the most to offer the UK nature conservation movement, the 18 to 25 year-olds, of which I am one.

So why aren’t 18-25 year olds more engaged in our movement?

Well it is not because they don’t want to be, you only have to look at the numbers signing up to undergraduate and vocational conservation courses to realise that. But most fail to make the transition from the classroom to being part of the movement, either as a volunteer or a professional. I believe one of the reasons for this is the different backgrounds of aspiring and current conservationists.

Older conservationists generally reached their outlook on life having spent much of their childhood and teenage years as a naturalist, either taxa specific or more broadly. As is often commented, today’s young people rarely spend time outside with the sole purpose of looking for, identifying and appreciating species and their behaviours. This is even true for the vast majority of young people enrolled on conservation courses. However, many young people have watched nature documentaries, have a strong environmentalist ethic, or enjoy outdoor activities and I believe these backgrounds often explain why many young people find a course (and possibly a career) in conservation appealing.

But as these young people have rarely spent any time with nature, they have very little connection to the existing structures of the UK nature conservation movement. They are often unfamiliar with local and national statutory or non-statutory nature conservation organisations. They generally have no comprehension of what field-recording is. They have a poor understanding of UK species and the management techniques they require. They have very little comprehension of where the UK conservation movement has come from and how it is likely to progress in the future. Unsurprisingly, they also have little, if any, knowledge of conservation publications such as British Wildlife or ECOS.

But despite this naivety, many young people still want to become a conservationist and consequently enrol on conservation courses. Yet, once enrolled, they often still fail to become part of the UK nature conservation movement.

University courses are often taught by those who already have a passion and interest in nature, generally from the old route of a youth spent observing and enjoying nature. So, in my experience, conservation courses rarely encourage or support students to become field naturalists, or to discover the history and structures of the UK nature conservation movement. It is expected they should be knowledgeable and passionate enough to do this for themselves. But I believe this approach fails to consider the incredibly low baseline of many of the students enrolled on these courses. They simply have had so little, if any, experience of nature or the UK nature conservation movement that they have no idea where to even begin their involvement.

Many conservation courses at research intensive universities also fail students by emphasising the skills needed to become a conservation scientist, as opposed to a conservation practitioner.

But despite the failings of our colleges and universities, I believe much of the responsibility for the lack of young conservationists lies with the conservation movement itself. Yes conservationists are under-paid, under-resourced and under-valued by society at large. Yes, they have a myriad of demands on their time which are impossible to address. But how is it that in the three years of my undergraduate ecology degree, sharing more than 90% of my classes with conservation biology students, no conservation organisations ever attempted to engage with me or my classmates? Yes, I studied at the comparatively remote University of Aberdeen. But combined, JNCC, NTS, RSPB, SEPA, SNH and SWT have more than 150 staff based in or around Aberdeen.

As far as I can see, the UK nature conservation movement has never made any strategic attempt to connect with young people enrolled on conservation courses. Neither has it ever attempted to convey the knowledge no longer taught in modern universities. The students enrolled on these courses are the conservationists of the future; by failing to engage, I believe the UK nature conservation movement is making a grave error in judgement.

Solutions

In my opinion, the situation is bleaker than many wish to acknowledge. The UK nature conservation movement lacks any meaningful youth component, there are no effective structures in place to increase youth engagement, and the lack of young people reduces what the movement can achieve now and in the future. But I believe, with the following interventions, the UK nature conservation movement can begin to remedy the situation:

Initiate a National Youth Nature Conservation Forum – With the aim of creating a self-supporting community of 18-25 year olds who share an interest in nature and its conservation. Knowledge of species, management practices and volunteering opportunities could all be shared. In time, an alumni network of older amateur and professional conservationists could form to provide support and a sense of belonging. Additionally, the community would be able to drive its own intellectual development (and that of the wider conservation movement) through lectures and workshops. Group field trips, including weekends away, would undoubtedly increase knowledge and add to the esprit de corps. Such an organisation could take inspiration from the Flemish organisation Jeugdbond voor Natuur en Milieu (Youth Organisation for Nature and Environment) and, as young people aged 18-25 are often already clustered around university courses, this will ease the formation of local groups.

Organise an Annual National Youth Conservation Camp – This multi-day event would allow young conservationists to interact with both their peer group and existing conservation professionals. A mixture of talks and field-trips could provide inspiration and opportunity for young conservationists to explore, with their peer group, the UK’s wildlife and the UK conservation movement. Such an event would undoubtedly broaden the horizons of many young people and encourage them to play a greater part in the movement. 

Provide a Centralised Information Point for Aspiring Young Conservationists – Not affiliated to any one organisation, such a website would provide information about the current ideals and structures of the movement. It could also provide a centralised point for aspiring young conservationists to discover volunteering opportunities, to find out how to progress a conservation career and to connect with their peer group.

Facilitate Mentoring by Existing Naturalists and Conservationists – The decline in natural history knowledge among young people is widely recognised, especially for more “niche” taxa. This has obvious implications for nature conservation because if you can’t identify a species, how can you conserve it? It seems to me many naturalists want to pass on their knowledge and many young people would be interested in learning about specific taxa. However, these groups rarely overlap socially or professionally and consequently an opportunity for informal mentoring is missed. A centralised information point (perhaps attached to the above website) would link aspiring conservationists to expert naturalists, or groups of naturalists, who are willing to teach them about the conservation and identification of their taxa of interest.

Provide Free Issues of Conservation Magazines – such as British Wildlife and the magazines of conservation NGOs to departments that teach conservation courses. This could either be a loss leader or subsidised by another organisation. This would introduce the movement to aspiring young conservationists.

Undertake University Visits – Staff should be employed to i) introduce university conservation students to UK nature conservation and extra-curricular conservation activities, ii) aid the formation of university conservation groups affiliated to a national youth nature conservation forum.

Restructure the UK Conservation Education System – the only suggestion requiring considerable investment and resources. Worthy of an article itself, I believe the disparate and varying quality of conservation education is a major barrier to the development of the movement.

Although these suggestions require time to implement, none are especially draining in financial or other resources. Indeed many of the proposals have the potential to become self-financing and any costs incurred would be more than recouped by the benefits of having thousands more young people meaningfully engaging with the UK nature conservation movement.

The Time to Act is Now

As time moves forward our ability to remedy the situation decreases. The number of young people in the UK who already have the necessary knowledge and passion is at a perilously low number. These are the young people who will become the core of any movement and once lost, the creation of a UK youth nature conservation movement will be even more challenging.

But no youth movement is a success unless it is managed by the young people themselves. So perhaps UK conservation organisations should hold off and leave the young people that remain to initiate their own movement? I see two problems with this approach: first, no such movement has occurred in the last few decades so why would one form now? Second, although the formation of the online group “Next Generation Birders” indicates some young naturalists/conservationists are coming together, I would suggest such groups lack the financial and organisational ability to have a meaningful impact on the UK youth nature conservation scene, especially in the time-frame required; although such groups should obviously still be supported.

The few remaining knowledgeable and passionate young conservationists are too dispersed, disconnected and under-resourced to start the change that is required. So as long as the UK nature conservation movement intervenes in the knowledge it will eventually have to relinquish control of the resulting youth movement, I see no conflict arising. However, without the financial and administrative resources of existing conservation organisations to initiate the process, I do not see any way in which a UK youth nature conservation movement can arise and the wider movement be preserved. 

Conclusion

Many conservationists bemoan the lack of young people in UK nature conservation, yet it seems no organisation has taken any meaningful steps to address the issue. Improving our engagement with the multitude of age groups that fall under the banner “youth” may be challenging. But if we start by effectively engaging the thousands of young people who have already demonstrated a commitment to conservation, by enrolling on a conservation course, we will gain a far better reward than trying to engage those young people who have yet to make the first step.

For a country with such a rich history of nature conservation, it’s incredible to think we don’t even have an annual gathering of young conservationists, let alone a coherent youth nature conservation movement. How have we reached a situation where there isn’t even something as simple as a website for aspiring young conservationists to learn about the UK nature conservation movement? For too long UK nature conservation has taken it for granted that an adequate number of passionate and talented young people will always emerge to keep the movement going. If the movement doesn’t want its hard work to have been in vain, it needs to think again.

 

Danny Heptinstall is 24 and has been a birder and a naturalist all his life. He is currently studying the population expansion of reintroduced UK red kites for his PhD in Ecology at the University of Aberdeen. He would happily discuss the above with any interested organisations or persons. More information about him can be found here http://www.linkedin.com/in/dheptinstall he aims to blog here https://naturewarblings.wordpress.com and he can be contacted at djheptinstall@googlemail.com

*Within this article, the term “conservation course” refers to courses including, but not solely limited to, Botany, Conservation, Conservation Biology, Ecology, Marine Biology, Plant Sciences, Zoology and any applied derivatives of. Although many are not strictly conservation courses, I justify this selection as the young people on these courses clearly have an interest in the natural world and are consequently more likely to positively respond to a nature conservation message. Additionally, many of the people enrolled on these courses do have the aim of becoming a conservationist, even if their course title does not strictly reflect this.

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