The Coming Decade of Nature Recovery:
Something beautiful is happening, but it needs to be beautifuler
Youngwilders is a small non-profit doing youth-led nature recovery work in the UK. For years a beloved but slow-moving hobby for myself and a group of close friends, it coalesced into its current professional iteration in April 2022. Our founding mission is twofold: (1) to accelerate nature recovery of the UK and (2) involve young people in the process and movement. The core of our work in achieving these ends is small-scale ecological restoration projects across the UK, though presently most of the 10 projects we have underway are contained to southern England. We design and implement nature recovery strategies that seek to restore ecological systems on a given site, whilst using every stage of the project as a tool to help young people get more connected to nature, and to engage, upskill and inspire the next generation of environmental stewards.
The need for increased UK nature recovery work and for involving young people has never been more pronounced. After centuries of leading the world in decimating our natural landscape, a sobering study by the Natural History Museum puts our ecological intactness in the bottom 10% globally. Though we’re quite familiar with statistics like these, the fact that the UK has some of the most degraded ecology on earth can be difficult to fully metabolise. Perhaps because our countryside, despite being ecological desolate, remains broadly green in colour. Perhaps because a lot of the ecological deserts in the UK can look quite beautiful (barren moors, rolling cultivated hills). Perhaps because of ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, where each generation accepts their ailing ecological surroundings and readjusts their expectations of the natural world accordingly. Whatever the reasons for our collective inertia, this ecological ill health serves to totally invalidate our voice in the global nature conservation discussion. Why should anyone listen to a country that has annihilated life within its borders at every opportunity?
On top of our decimated ecology, young people feel anxious and left out of the conversation. Less than one in five UK young people feel like they are being listened to surrounding environmental issues. Most painfully, the conversation they’re excluded from is about a problem they didn’t cause, with a resultant issue that will affect their lives exponentially more than the lives of those who did. However, I believe these problems, intractable as they have sometimes seemed, are about to dissolve at an astonishing rate.
Last year, we held our first ‘Resurgence’, a Youth Rewilding Festival at the Knepp estate, organised in collaboration with the Knepp Wildland Foundation and Heal Rewilding. In preparation, I spent that summer speaking to as many older conservationists as I could. The intent behind each chat was to gather the hard-won wisdom they wished they’d had earlier in their careers, as well as to gather some reflections on how the industry has changed across their lifetimes and how the challenges we face now differ to those faced at the outset of their work.
The process, at least for me, was utterly eye-opening. Although the interviewees aired lots of regret about the ecological decline they presided over, there was lots to celebrate too. Two very promising developments that were mentioned repeatedly were:
(1) The public care more now
(2) Money has arrived
Many of the older conservationists spoke about their job being something of a conversation-ender in decades past. If you mentioned you worked in nature conservation, at best there was limited interest in what was considered quite an idiosyncratic pursuit, and at worst there were scoffs and sneers, with the moniker ‘tree hugger’, now a badge of honour, then wielded with derision. Thankfully, all of the experienced conservationists expressed that the response to their work from outside the sector has totally shifted. Where once there was apathy, now there is care and enthusiasm. Where once there were gibes, there is warmth, expressions of personal guilt and a will to improve. As young conservationists, this new public support will be the wind in our sails throughout our environmental careers and its existence and upwards trend is something to treasure.
Another vital and thrilling shift has been the economic recognition of the importance of nature conservation and rewilding work. Some of the older conservationists discussed that protecting nature had sometimes been thought of as a barrier to economic progress, or a ‘nice to have’ but ultimately inessential line of work. But they all acknowledged, with varying degrees of trust in the in-bound systems, that payment for ecosystem services (PES) schemes are set to change that. Though inevitably it feels like we’re missing the point a little to assess nature’s value in ecomonic terms, history shows us that if our economic system doesn’t recognise nature’s value, it will be sidelined and destroyed, so these PES developments mark a welcome moment in UK nature conversation.
Even since these conversations last Summer, there have been very promising developments on the PES front, with the Government proposing and developing a number of ambitious policies and strategies. Biodiversity Net Gain, Environmental Land Management Scheme (particularly the landscape recovery component), nutrient neutrality, carbon credits and nature markets for private sector investment (e.g. farms taking payment from insurance companies for floodplain creation) are all storming in. Though each of these schemes are susceptible to their own and shared drawbacks– several remain vague and they frequently seem to stop and start–the broader trend is undeniable, and, together with mass public support, will facilitate a totally unprecedented amount of nature recovery work in the coming decade.
So the news is good. It’s come late - there’s still lots to be ironed out - but the level of support we need has arrived. This is beautiful. But, still, it must be beautifuler. Our most recent Youngwilders volunteer day (hosted November 25th 2023) involved planting pioneer groves of trees at our new rewilding site in Essex. 35 young volunteers put 700 trees in the ground. It was a joyous and productive day (photographic evidence provided). But before we pat ourselves on the back too much, it’s interesting to note that one volunteer there, Chris, had worked as a professional tree-planter in Canada for a few years, and recounted planting 1500 trees in a single day.
A natural response to comparing these statistics might be shock at the Youngwilders inefficiency. And a sneaking thought that we need more Chris and less Youngwilders. But the mindset I hope to instil is not that Youngwilders are unforgivably inefficient, but that Chris’ 1500 trees in a single day, whilst being excellent, is also a massive wasted opportunity.
Narrow nature recovery is the kind of nature recovery work that can occur in a profit-driven environment. It is contained to a small group of contractors; fast, clinical, metric driven and efficiency focused. Value-plural nature recovery is the kind of nature recovery work where profit is not the central or sole priority, it is often done by large groups of well-meaning amateurs, it is messy, community-oriented, mental well-being boosting and can afford to take a more holistic ecological approach that might better appreciate nature’s dynamism.
Both leanings have advantages and disadvantages and inevitably we will need work across this spectrum to get to where we need to in the time we have. But I believe that everyone working in our sector needs to rise to the organisational challenge of making sure as much of the work as possible is happening at the value-plural end of the spectrum. This is because of the self-evidently positive features already touched on, but also because it presents a thrilling opportunity to connect vast swathes of the public to the natural world.
I ascribe to the view that a lack of societal nature-connectedness is one of the core drivers of our environmental ills and that any environmental work that ignores this fact is critically short-sighted. The engagement, custodianship and compassion through action that mass public and youth involvement in the nature recovery process would facilitate would be an indispensable tool both in getting the work itself done appropriately, and in the essential, larger mission of reconnecting to our natural world.
What this next decade of nature recovery presents, aside from an exhilarating explosion of life, is the largest nature engagement opportunity this country has ever seen. And, to shamelessly reinsert Youngwilders into the fray, we need more organisations like us taking this opportunity seriously and making sure young people are at the centre of it.