Your Countryside Needs You
After seven years at the helm, Somerset Wildlife Trust CEO Simon Nash is convinced that community engagement is the future in creating sustainable ‘living landscapes’. Mark Ogden reports.
He has an international career background and had previously headed up a global organisation, yet when he agreed to take on the respected but sleep rural Somerset Wildlife Trust, Simon Nash was warned it might prove to be his biggest challenge yet.
Undeterred, and for all the right reasons, he went ahead and made the move and today, seven years on, the wildlife organisation he leads is now at the forefront of nature conservation.
So, what did it take to face the challenges of leading, even ‘pushing’, Somerset Wildlife Trust (SWT) into the limelight and to double its active volunteers to almost 600 and county membership to over 20,000 in just seven years?
“Many of my wider family were farmers and my father was a forester in the Cotswolds, so the outside world is very much inbuilt in me,” he explains. “I’ve always had an affinity to Nature.”
At University in the early 1980s, Simon studied politics and international relations: “That was during the early stages of the big sustainability debates, particularly the importance of the environment to huge populations in Africa and how we needed to look after those ecosystems.”
He left University feeling inspired to make a real difference but actually began his career somewhat unpromisingly as a Civil service filing clerk in the then Department of Employment. Before long, he applied for a job internally as a member of the conservation team at the Countryside Commission but after just 18 months in post, he realised that the structures, rules and regulations of a Civil service body were not right for him. “I am a bit more of a maverick. I wanted to challenge things and get things done faster and more urgently.”
So he took what he describes as a huge personal risk and applied for and got a job as operations manager for the International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau (IWRB). When he started, the organisation had no real income and was surviving on just one Dutch grant but within a few years, and thanks primarily to its water bird data collection, it had gained an international profile.
A change of name - to Wetlands International - and a move from the UK to Holland saw Simon rapidly promoted to chief executive of the International Co-ordination Unit with responsibility for Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Asia Pacific and the Americas.
Described by one former colleague as a ‘bulldozer who won’t take no for an answer’ Simon says he learned early on that sometimes, however much of a rush you may be in, for the best results, you may need to be patient.
Then, in 2003, with a thriving international career and his 40th birthday looming, Simon surprised his family, friends and co-workers by applying for the vacant post of CEO of Somerset Wildlife Trust (SWT). The time, he says, was right to make such a dramatic change and not least because his hitherto high profile career meant he was spending less and less time “getting my feet wet in the wetlands.”
He remembers talking to Mike Moser, his former director, about the opportunity at SWT: “Mike said, ‘its probably the biggest challenge you’ll ever take on, and probably the biggest learning curve you will ever have in your career, but if you want it, go for it.”
One of the first challenges Simon saw when he joined SWT was to establish a clear, long-term strategy: “We spent a good six months going out and talking to members, listening to members, listening to volunteers, listening to staff, and talking to other organisations as well about their expectations of SWT.
“When I joined, the big debate that was happening across the Wildlife Trusts movement was the whole concept known as ‘rebuilding biodiversity’. That’s all about working on a much bigger scale. In the past wildlife trusts and many conservation organisations were focused on protecting small pockets of wildlife, sometimes completely isolated. They could be reserves of just two acres surrounded by 500 acres of intensive farming.
“We realised that we needed to take a much more holistic view of the landscape. The reality is that we have got to work with landowners, local communities and other organisations to create bigger conservation areas.”
Simon says he appreciates that much of SWT’s transformation, particularly in the past two years, has been down to the efforts and abilities of a small group of core staff, managers and trustees. He is acutely aware that the UK’s recent change to a coalition government and its proposed new measures to control the continuing financial crisis may well lead to further cuts in hard pressed wildlife conservation budgets and says the upshot even greater need to make the most of limited resources in the future.
The future though, whatever the budgetary constraints, will, he says, depend on community, learning and education.
“Our role as an organisation has got to be as a catalyst. We are investing heavily in our communication tools, our website, our digital media and e-marketing and in more community engagement and community events. Area groups are essential to the organisation and I want to see more of those across the county at local level, in the towns and villages across Somerset.”
Simon admits one weakness in the community engagement strategy has been its failure to reach a younger demographic – from teens to thirties - and so there are now several new initiatives afoot to engage with those age groups, including a big marketing ‘push’ at the Glastonbury Festival this year.
“We had eight of our younger staff members there for the full five days this year, with a big yurt and lots of activities going on in the Green Futures fields. We had partnership hook-ups with local cider producers and also stewarded a number of areas at the festival.
“We are also talking to farmers about becoming more involved in the strategic side of the organisation, becoming trustees one day, or becoming members of our two main committees. The farming community is under enormous pressure for a number of reasons, but many of them are keen to find ways of working more closely with us and find solutions to outstanding issues.”
“In today’s modern society, many people have lost the connection with their natural environment. Creating a landscape rich in wildlife will bring positive effects to sustainable agriculture, local business, health and other social benefits. People need to be inspired, empowered and engaged in what happens in their local environment. Community engagement and ownership will be vital if we are to deliver this strategy.”