‘A Vision for Nature’ – The First National AFON Conference

On Friday 5th and Saturday 6th September I was fortunate enough to attend the inaugural ‘Vision for Nature Conference’, held in Cambridge. Over the two days over 200 delegates attended and discussions covered the full breadth of conservation topics. AFON (or A Focus on Nature) is a network for young conservationists (under 30) in the United Kingdom and is the brainchild of Lucy McRobert, who I must thank for organising the whole event with the rest of her team. There have been many blogs including those from Megan Shersby and Beth Aucott and an article in the Independent newspaper that have explained most of the detail of the event, allowing those who were unable to attend or were unaware of the event in the first place to explore some of the ideas that were presented. However, I want to use this opportunity to reflect on a few of my own notes that I made through the two days. There were many different workshops on offer through the two days but, partly because they were so competitive, I didn’t attend any of them. Instead, I got involved in the debates that took place in the principal lecture theatre. These ranged from discussions regarding natural capital, speakers in this case including Tony Juniper, Mark Avery and Matt Shardlow (CEO of Buglife) to a debate on whether ‘science’ should have the final say in conservation policy – in this case Dr Andy Clements of the BTO and Dr Debbie Pain of WWT going against Ralph Underhill and environmental historian Rob Lambert who made a case for animals as ‘social cultural beasts’, not just ‘biological beasts’. Of particular interest for me was a selection of talks entitled ‘So, you want to work in nature conservation?’ with TedTalker Niall McCann and Natural England Area Manager Pamela Abbots being particularly inspiring, and the debate on land management in the UK where the panel included Professor Jane Rickson of Cranfield University and local farmer Robert Law.

Delegates were faced with the reality of current times very early on in the conference when Dr Andy Clements reminded everyone of Medway Council’s decision to grant planning permission to develop Lodge Hill, a SSSI in Kent and a stronghold for nightingales. It is true that we face a struggle of needing to allow for human ‘development’ whilst conserving habitat for other species (and preserving green space for humans). In this case I believe that the council got it wrong. Destruction of a SSSI is perhaps unforgiveable given that there were still many other options at this space in time. Development should be ‘sustainable’, economically, environmentally and socially and certainly Lodge Hill does not tick the box for the environmental category. Nonetheless, it is an important reality and one that many delegates chose to embrace in their conversations with each other through the weekend.

Also key was a reflection on the way that we fundamentally see nature, Rob Lambert of the University of Nottingham particularly making a case for most people seeing nature in a non-scientific way but in a way that still brings a sense of value and a feeling of the need to preserve certain landscapes, seascapes or species. Dr Debbie Pain, Director of Conservation at WWT quoted from Robert Browning’s Home thoughts from abroad, to show how nature can be so much more to us than the biological reality that we measure day to day.


Oh, to be in England
Now that April ‘s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That ‘s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

Robert Browning

The eloquent words above lift us into the outdoors without even having to be there.

Further, Debbie Pain pointed to an article written by Mark Avery in 2011 when he wrote that ‘it demeans us when we lose a species’. We must come to accept that the supposed dualism between nature and culture is cultural in creation and indeed not a safe reality to continue to accept. Indeed, every species that is lost is a direct commentary on our own identity and animality. We continue to consume resources in increasingly unsustainable ways and at the same time we put the existence of numerous species at fundamental risk. We need to reflect on what it is that we truly value: a healthy biodiversity or a less vibrant and diverse planet that is polluted and overpopulated. Incidentally, population was only mentioned once during the entire conference and even then was quickly brushed under the carpet – even conservationists find it difficult to deal with this controversial and complex topic (see population matters for more information). I feel that this topic must be pushed to the centre of the youth conservation movement – it is not healthy to ignore it as similar conservation movements in the past have done so easily and effectively. People may be the problem but, as Niall McCann said on the Friday, we are most certainly also the solution and there was an acceptance by delegates that in order to move forward we are going to have to reach out to people in a way never quite seen before. Further, this pointed towards there being a huge number of opportunities in the sector for non-scientists. Having specialists in marketing for example will be critical for the future success of the conservation movement – as Jenny Leon from Froglife said ‘images are key’ as well as looking at the language we use – something that marketeers or arts graduates are specially trained to do. Conservation is no longer just about conservation!

I left the conference hall on Saturday evening with a lot of questions about my own direction flushing their way through my head. The conference brought about an excitement and an even stronger personal determination to contribute in some small way to this very exciting and important sector as time goes on. As a network the AFON group has so much potential, exemplified by the decision to draw together a report outlining the delegates’ ‘Vision for Nature’, set in comparison to the recent State of Nature report. This will be an important project in forging ahead with what Simon Phelps has called ‘the beginning of the youth conservation movement’, something that has perhaps been present before now but has not had the organised voice that AFON provides. The conference was put together in a very clever way that enabled younger conservationists to meet with those more experienced in the sector on an equal footing, which meant that there was the potential throughout for real achievements to be gathered as a result of conversations during the two days. The optimism, enthusiasm and feeling that this was the start of something big was infectious and I hope that the momentum is not lost. As the first AFON event that I have attended I was seriously impressed and very much look forward to taking an active role in the group in the future. For more information on AFON visit their website, facebook page or twitter. Thank you once again to Matt Williams and Lucy McRobert for organising the event.

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