There is something notable happening in conservation. For years, conservationists have bemoaned the perceived lack of interest that younger people take in the natural world. They point to nature deficit disorder as a distinct consequence of a generation of children lacking outdoor experiences. The internet is cast as a negative force, with children spending upwards of 20 hours a week online, mostly scrolling through social media sites. 30% of 2-15 year olds are overweight or obese and, according to a 2008 National Trust survey (going back a few years here), only 2/3 of children could identify a magpie and half did not know the difference between a bee and a wasp.
However, there is another side to this story.
Every August at Rutland Water the biggest conservation event in the UK takes place – the BirdFair. In the last few years people have begun to take notice of a growing number of young people who have been attending, not just with their parents or grandparents, but often of their own volition.
Image: Young People at BirdFair (courtesy of A Focus On Nature) © Beth Aucott
Who are these young people ?
They come from all corners of the UK and have a wide range of different backgrounds, interests and training. Their strength comes in their diversity and their inclusivity. Through informal engagement, mostly outside of the ‘conventional’ and traditional nature conservation organisations, they have built their own organisations that fit their particular ways and means of connecting with each other. These include A Focus On Nature, Next Generation Birders and the youngest of the youth-led organisations, Wilder. Together, they form part of a cohesive youth nature movement. They are growing more organised and experienced as time goes on, and many of the traditional nature conservation organisations have taken note of their work.
A Focus On Nature, affectionately referred to as AFON, is the largest and most developed of the youth organisations. It is a network of young people, aged 16-30 (but realistically there are members younger than this) who share a passion for the natural world and want to connect with each other and talk about their interest. Their facebook group has been growing steadily and they organise regular events. Of particular note is AFON’s mentoring scheme, which gives the opportunity for members to connect with professionals working in all sorts of fields, from practical conservation to writing, film making, academia and campaigning. You can follow them on twitter @AFONature. If you fancy joining the network, get in touch with them at firstname.lastname@example.org . They have members from all sorts of backgrounds, and you don’t need to have an ecology degree to join!
Next Generation Birders, whilst it may smaller than AFON and more specific, in that it is just for birders, has also had a huge impact. By bringing young birders together they can share their enthusiasm and knowledge, build experiences together and boost each other’s confidence. Often, birding or wildlife is not seen as a positive thing to be involved in at school and many young people interested in conservation suffer from bullying. Organisations such as NGB and AFON provide a safe space for them to do what they love and socialise with like-minded people, reducing their isolation.
Finally, there is Wilder, an exciting new organisation being spearheaded by James Common and others. It is a grassroots activism group, which works to support conservation efforts and argue a case for protecting wildlife legislation in the UK. In the long run, they want to run campaigns and form regional groups that bring local people together to combat localised issues.
How did they come together?
The answer to this has a lot to do with the very thing that many older conservationists had been vilifying – the internet. The wonders of the world-wide-web are certainly a factor in keeping many young people indoors, but the internet (specifically social media) has also brought together those interested in nature. Through posting online they are able to keep in contact with each other and the distance that is sometimes apparent between the traditional nature conservation organisations and their members completely disappears. After all, messaging is instantaneous. Social media seems to have formed a core part of the identity of the youth nature movement, in a way that it is seemingly more superfluous for the traditional conservation bodies.
Of course, the members of the youth nature movement still get involved with the ‘traditional’ organisations. They are members, volunteers and attend events along with the ‘older generations’. However, they seem most comfortable with these grass roots, more informal organisations, learning about the natural world and inspiring each other to do amazing things.
How did I get involved?
I have always had an interest in the natural world and the ‘great outdoors’ but it wasn’t until I got to university that I really started actively getting involved in nature conservation, volunteering for conservation organisations and thinking deeply about the natural world. This led to me starting my blog, thinkingcountry, in 2013, in which I started to explore a whole host of issues connecting farming (my family background) and conservation.
I can’t really remember how I was introduced to Lucy McRobert, AFON’s founder and former Creative Director, but we shared a common degree history (both environmental historians) and she was keen on getting more people involved. In September 2014 I went along to AFON’s first major conference, held in Cambridge, which aimed to spearhead a ‘Vision for Nature’. Incidentally, we went on to publish the Vision for Nature report in July of this year. The enthusiasm at that conference really spurred me on to want to get involved. Here was a young organisation that had bags of energy and made up of dozens of inspiring young people, all eager to work together for a better world. I was hooked and tried to get involved as much as possible. In January of this year I joined the committee and it is a real privilege to be at the centre of such an exciting movement.
What’s the future for the Youth Nature Movement?
The movement still looks like it is growing and more and more young people are jumping on board and getting involved. As James pointed out in a recent post, conservation has become quite fashionable, and this is certainly helping to drive the youth movement. However, it goes beyond this. I believe that the real success of bringing these people together has been to remove isolation and to exponentially advance the inspiration levels and determination of these people to get stuck in and find a way that they can make a difference, in their own way. It is about giving them confidence.
The movement seems to be growing, with new organisations, such as Wilder, making their own mark. Things could move in several different directions although I think it is most likely that it will become several things:
- Firstly, it will continue to bring young people together through a growing network.
- Secondly, it will be more political and provide a collective voice for young people who are concerned about the natural world.
- Thirdly, it will become more organised and localised, with young people in the same regions regularly meeting and carrying out work together.
It is an exciting time to be a conservationist for many reasons. However, it is also a famously depressing sector to be in, with the general narrative being one of loss and destruction. The youth nature movement adds a determined optimism to conservation and this will continue as it develops. It is outward looking, inclusive and forward thinking. Yes, there are things that could be improved on, for example, a particular effort is happening right now with regards to improving diversity. However, the general momentum is positive and engaging and we all look forward to taking the movement onwards towards a brighter future.
Ben Eagle is an environmental and agricultural writer based in the South West. He sits on the committee of A Focus On Nature, the UK’s largest youth nature network, and edits their seasonal newsletter. To read more of his work visit his website www.thinkingcountry.com or follow him on twitter @benjy_eagle.