David and I attended a Nature Summit last Friday evening, organised by Suffolk Wildlife Trust, to which we belong. We had been invited to listen to a range of senior and junior speakers. The youngest was twelve years old. We were told about numerous wildlife and conservation initiatives in our county. Many of the delegates shared thoughts not only on wildlife but also on the climate crisis.
The event was fully booked and there was a waiting list, which means that 200 tickets were allocated. I can't begin to think how many people were involved, let alone how many organisations were represented. The summit took place in Dance East on the Ipswich Waterfront, just along the quayside from the main University of Suffolk building (the grey and white one in the photo below).
What follows below is a summary of the notes I made during the evening. Some speakers spoke much faster than others and the auditorium was fairly dark, so my account can only be a sketchy report at best. It is written from a personal viewpoint.
The first part of the evening was hosted by Jon Wright (I shall highlight speakers or key participants in yellow) from BBC Radio Suffolk. Those who spoke included Ben McFarland, Head of Conservation for Suffolk Wildlife Trust, and Thérèse Coffey MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Environment.
It was stressed from the outset how acting locally can have a global impact. 2019 has been The Year of Green Action, and therefore a particularly opportune moment to be reminded of the benefits that a 'wilder Suffolk' could bring, benefits not only to our towns, coast and countryside, but also to the well-being and health of our residents.
We were introduced to Jo Salter, a Year of Green Action Ambassador, who sells her own ethical clothing brand, Where Does It Come From?. We were also told about Our Bright Future, an initiative set up by The Wildlife Trusts to introduce young people to those who work in the environment sectors.
Hardly surprisingly Chris Packham's name was mentioned several times, and at least once in relation to A People's Manifesto for Wildlife. We were reminded that BBC Springwatch had come from the RSPB's Minsmere just a few years ago, and that Suffolk is home to some very rare creatures, some of which have been at the heart of conservation success stories.
I know from my teenage years in Norfolk just how rare Bitterns had become, and I recall the utter thrill some years ago (at WWT Welney in the Cambridgeshire fens) when I was able to watch Avocet chicks for the first time. We have watched and heard Bitterns at Minsmere in the last few years. We have seen what is being done to protect the Stone Curlew in the Brecks, and we have been entranced by the rare Fen Raft Spider (see Dr Helen Smith's webpage here, with a link to my Fen Raft Spider poem).
In terms of the protection of species, it came as no surprise to hear the words, 'together we are stronger', emanating from the platform. We were shown what can be achieved when bodies like the RSPB, the National Trust, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, the government, the landowner and the farmer agree to work in partnership. The Shifting Sands project relating to The Brecks, part of the Back from the Brink initiative to save our most threatened species, was brought to our attention.
At this point we were introduced to some music, Nightingale music. Ben McFarland, Head of Conservation at Suffolk Wildlife Trust, reminded us of the poet Keats and his 'Ode to a Nightingale' poem of 1819, pointing out that this masterpiece was inspired by the sound of the bird's song in North London. Tragically there has been a 91% decline in Nightingale numbers. Street artist, ATM, spent the afternoon painting a fabulous Water Vole: we were told that these beautiful creatures are suffering a 95% decline. The State of Nature Report revealed that a horrifying 60% of species were in decline.
Ben McFarland shared a favourite book with us, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by Gilbert White, published in 1789 once White's correspondence had been edited and shaped into book form. McFarland read us an excerpt to make us realise that White could go outside for a walk and expect to see or hear species like the Wryneck, Redstart and Red-backed Shrike. Those were the days; but this was far from a call for complacency.
We were told about 'Shifting Baseline Syndrome', which you can read about here and how a study showed that what anglers perceived as a 'good' sized fish began to change over a period of time. This phenomenon is something we need to guard against.
Not surprisingly the negative impact of pesticides on our wildlife was mentioned. We were told about the market forces that drive intensive agriculture. We were reminded that Mercury Prize nominee, Sam Lee, feels we should 'see birdsong as a barometer for the health of this planet.' Not surprisingly, attention was drawn to Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
There is, of course, 'No Planet B', and it was put to us that conservation initiatives work best not only when organisations join together in partnership for projects but when individuals work together, too. We were shown the wisdom of an African proverb, that if you want to go fast, you go alone, but if you want to go far, you go together.
There was an excellent presentation from Suffolk farmer, John Pawsey, demonstrating through survey results the ecological benefits and increase in biodiversity he had found since changing to organic methods of agriculture. In 2017, some time after the switch, twenty-three species of butterfly were recorded on his land!
Bex Lynam, a Marine Advocacy Officer, was next to speak, sharing information about the state of our oceans and how Sir David Attenborough's Blue Planet II had increased awareness of plastic pollution. Bex also touched on oil and gas at sea, on ports, pipelines and shipwrecks. We were told the good news - yes, a welcome good news story - about the expansion of the Blue Belt area of protection off our coast and about the Orford Inshore MCZ (Marine Conservation Zone).
Hedgehog Officer for Ipswich, Ali North, who works on urban wildlife with Suffolk Wildlife Trust, highlighted the importance of connected gardens that serve as 'hedgehog highways'. We were encouraged to have wild patches and to leave logs piles in place. Apparently there are now sixty Hedgehog Champions in Ipswich. We were encouraged to speak to our neighbours about creating the necessary 'highways'. We were also asked to submit hedgehog sightings.
It was good to be reminded that people change not by hearing our views but by watching our actions, and this applies to the way in which we serve our wildlife. Contact with friends and neighbours is a key part of the process.
Not surprisingly, the matter of Sizewell C was raised during the evening. We were told that if the power station plan proceeds, it will cut the AONB in half. I have signed a petition to the government and have already mentioned my concerns about the prospect on this blog.
Those on the platform were challenged about their personal use of plastic: what were they ashamed of in their food cupboards at home? It is a question we can all consider.
Dr Amy-Jane Beer spoke about inclusivity and accessibility, feeling that 'we should recognise access to diverse nature as a human right, and reinstate that access to all members of society.' She mentioned the need to include women and 'differently abled' people. She highlighted the importance of ensuring that children have access to wildlife and a voice in society.
Beer highlighted the benefits of a child's life that involved contact with the natural world. She referred to The Lost Words by Dr Robert Macfarlane, and how 'the gift of naming becomes the gift of seeing', in other words, once you can recognise and name a creature like a Blackbird, you tend to go on seeing it, i.e. noticing it, and this recognition can lead to awareness and care for the species. She mentioned a language that has no word for the colour 'blue'. Beer advocated a public transport 'nature bus' that would take a different route each weekend, transporting those without cars to one of the many nature reserves in our county. On the subject of names, one of the other speakers (was it Ali North?) reminded us that we all have to start somewhere and should not chide ourselves if we cannot name all the trees in the park straight away. As an aside at this point, my blog post on the recent Suffolk exhibition, 'The Lost Words - Forget-Me-Not' at Snape Maltings can be found here.
After Dr Beer's talk we were reminded by Sandy Martin, Labour MP for Ipswich with 'shadow' responsibility for recycling, that the best way to deal with waste is not to create it in the first place.
We moved into what was for me and I guess for many one of the most impassioned parts of the evening when four young environmentalists (between the ages of 12 and 21) took to the stage and spoke most eloquently to the packed auditorium about their heartfelt concerns for the future, for their future. They told us about the wildlife and climate-crisis initiatives with which they are personally involved. They put forward a number of suggestions for us to consider. These ranged from involving celebrities to riding a bike, and from reducing our meat intake to switching to ethical banks. Mention was made of activist activities such as Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg's school strike.
It is clear to me that while some have, we were informed, still to believe that the natural world is in danger, others are all too aware of the situation, and some of these are suffering genuine and sometimes debilitating symptoms as a result. Eco-angst (I found a helpful definition here) and illnesses like depression linked to the climate crisis are surfacing and need to be addressed.
At this point in the evening, we learned about a couple of local projects. Toads are in decline in our area, so it was heartening to be introduced to a volunteer from the Bobbits Lane Toad Patrol in Ipswich who ensures that these amphibians cross a road and reach their breeding grounds safely. We were also told about the Save Our Suffolk Swifts campaign. We were introduced to volunteers, Alan and Christine Collett, key members of the Aldeburgh's Amazing Swifts campaign, and told how the arrival of the Swifts has become a cause of community celebration. There are now over 100 swift nesting boxes in the town.
Stephanie Hillborne OBE, Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trusts, was invited to deliver her speech. She expressed her desire to see conservation work achieved with people and through people. She felt there was a pressing need for us all to tell our stories, to put the facts out there in a way that connects with others. She told the story of a care home in which the residents were experiencing falls. Those linked to the care home decided that the home would take part in the 30 Days Wild initiative. The residents were motivated by the challenge of doing a 'Random Act of Wildness' every day for a month. It proved a successful venture, and now 500 care homes are taking part; and as involvement in the scheme has increased, the number of falls has decreased significantly. Hillborne also touched on peat as a crucial resource and on the benefit of Forest Schools.
Money was mentioned at various points during the evening. This is necessary, of course, to achieve change, but it was intimated that the amassing of money as a goal in itself does not lead to happiness. We were encouraged to think in terms of 'value' rather than 'cost'. Doing things around wildlife brings rewards of health and fulfilment, and many of these benefits have been scientifically proven. 57% of parents surveyed felt their children spent less time outside than they had as youngsters. The National Trust found that one in three children could not recognise a Magpie. This is a situation that should be changed.
What we have here is my personal account of the evening. I took notes during the sessions, but am aware that my text is rather fragmented in places. If any errors have crept into this account, I fear they will be mine.
What did I take away? Well, there was a massive amount of information to absorb in a single evening. There were talks by individuals, interviews, discussions, graphs and species survey lists. There were a couple of short films, including a film trailer in which 'Badger, Ratty, Mole and Toad strike out for a wilder future'. I left the hall with a much greater appreciation of, and respect for, the organisations and individuals of all ages and many political viewpoints who are already hard at work, trying to protect our natural environment here in Suffolk. I felt challenged by those who had already committed themselves to a virtually plastic-free lifestyle. I felt overwhelmed by the passion demonstrated by the young people.
My head is still spinning with ideas and possibilities. We were each given a pledge card to fill in at or after the event, which could then be pinned to our fridge at home as a reminder of what we decide to choose as our 'pledge for a Wilder Future'. I have filled in the easy bit, namely to increase the size of our wild garden as part of the #saynotothemow initiative, and will complete my card when I have finally settled on the details of what for me will be a more personal and challenging response.
You may not live in Suffolk, but it may be that you will also choose to embrace some new green initiative, however large or small. Dr Amy-Jane Beer reminded us that 'nature is not a nice to have: we need it.' As I mentioned above, there is no Planet B: we are all in this together.
May I express my personal thanks to all who took part in this event and helped to make it happen. I feel better informed and have come away with many challenges to consider. Others involved included Russell Savory (wildlife films), Fishclaw (who provided the music) and Suffolk artist, Brie Harrison (whose beautiful designs adorn the Pledge Card and the poster). There will be many others, of course.