Christopher Pennell has been the chair of Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust for the last five years. As he steps down from the position this September, we asked him to share his wild thoughts about his time at the helm.
As I approach in the autumn the end of my six years as a trustee of the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust and of five of those years as Chair of the Trust, I do ask myself ‘how on earth did I get into this’ and ‘has it been worthwhile’.
The philosopher Descartes coined the phrase cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am. As I moved through my working life I re-coined the phrase for me almost as a philosophy of life: disco ergo sum – I learn, therefore I am. Instead of viewing working life and retirement as the profitable employment of the skills and knowledge I already have, I have increasingly seen my ‘career’ as a journey of discovery to learn something new.
And so it was that, when I properly retired, I pushed the envelope again to make the big leap in the natural world from the landscape fraternity to the wildlife and biodiversity fraternity. I like to think that a bored Chair is no use to an organisation; so try to grab one who is doing something new and who will be filled with curiosity and enthusiasm!
What I have valued is the opportunity to play a part in protecting and promoting nature in an urban context.
One of my main observations on six years with the Wildlife Trust is as volunteer trustee, I share with so many members their enthusiasm for what they can discover through this excellent charity. In a sense the Chair of this Trust is the Volunteer-in-Chief: he or she can identify with the members because membership is the main requirement of a trustee, with the Trust’s wonderful volunteers because he or she is a volunteer too, and with the staff because he or she has a clear responsibility for them and shares and indeed helps to frame their aims and objectives.
None of this delight in learning is to suggest that taking Board responsibility for this Wildlife Trust is easy. As I prepare to leave the Board, the Trust is facing the extraordinary challenge of continuing to function under Covid-19 social distancing constraints and of surviving the consequent threat to its finances. It has always been a challenge to meet the tough objectives which we set ourselves and to raise the funds to keep the show not just on the road but performing well and flourishing. So, certainly not easy, but definitely rewarding.
Your local Trust can focus on local needs and challenges
What I have valued is the opportunity to play a part in protecting and promoting nature in an urban context. Most of the Wildlife Trusts are county-based and their size and character reflects the broad tracts of countryside they encompass. While Sheffield and Rotherham contain large areas of beautiful countryside, not least a substantial part of the eastern Peak District National Park, they also have large urban and suburban areas with many residents who all too easily can find themselves either short of, or neglectful of, quality green spaces.
It is one of the strengths of the Wildlife Trust movement that it consists of independent local trusts who each reflect and understand their own areas. It is a grassroots movement with a high degree of local autonomy. Your local Trust can focus on its local needs and challenges, and, in the Sheffield and Rotherham context, this means that we must not protect the wildlife and neglect the people, but promote the interests of both, living and flourishing together. Not only does this Trust fulfil its objective of creating and fostering a protected living network for nature (guided by carefully produced and locally consulted management plans for each reserve) but it strives to increase its influence beyond its own ‘estate’ by working with others to identify and promote the biodiversity value of land held by others.
While our ecologists live, work and sleep for biodiversity, the Trust recognises that in order to achieve societal consensus in favour of protecting our natural environment, we must provide encouragement for people to improve their lives through natural experiences; and this requires that we develop innovative initiatives and programmes to attract people of all ages and ethnicities to visit our reserves, to learn about nature and to appreciate the flora and fauna in their own gardens and local green spaces.
A close connection and active involvement with nature leads to increased personal well-being.
The way I see it is that for over 3 million years hominids were inside nature looking out; but modern man began to see himself outside nature looking in. We need to form a new partnership with nature, recognising how much we depend on it and are at one with it. The one good thing about coronavirus is that a lot more people have come to see what the risks are of abusing or neglecting nature and how much they have valued opportunities during lockdown to experience Nature, however local and modest.
I am proud that the Trust reaches out to those more difficult to get involved. For example, we have been working with 8 to 13 year old Roma boys in Eastwood village in Rotherham to get the skills to be Young Rangers. Our highly successful Wild at Heart Project for the National Lottery Community Fund has for several years delivered friendly and supportive nature-based hobby activity sessions for older folk; indeed, the sessions are so popular that we struggle to meet the demand. Many of the sessions are participant-led and help to boost confidence and supportive networks. All of this work is based on the proposition, which proves itself over and over again, that a close connection and active involvement with nature leads to increased personal well-being.
The natural world has well-informed and well-organised allies in this Wildlife Trust
One of the things I have learnt from these examples is how important it is that the natural world has well-informed and well-organised allies in this Wildlife Trust who are willing to stand up and be counted with firm resolve and powerful campaign skills when nature is threatened; but on top of that we can keep our cool and ensure that we cannot be dismissed as agitators and can even be chosen as well-intentioned constructive mediators. Our CEO, Liz Ballard, is a natural in this regard, respected and not sensibly ignored; and she has a formidable team backing her.
Another thing a trustee quickly learns – assuming that he or she did not already know – is that their contribution is not confined to talking about biodiversity and campaigning on environmental issues; additionally, a large amount of their time will be concerned with setting the delivery aims for the organisation; safeguarding its sustainability, integrity and efficiency. We have a weighty responsibility to concern ourselves with financial viability, organisational and governance structures, raising funds for our charitable purposes, ensuring the health and safety of our visitors, our staff and our volunteers and protecting the Trust’s precious reputation.
As I contemplate leaving the Trust’s board in the autumn, I am confident that, once the immediate Covid crisis is under control, the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust will be step up to the plate and return to delivering at full throttle for South Yorkshire’s wildlife and its people. I have enjoyed and learnt much from my six years at the helm and will continue to enjoy all that Trust offers while others take the strain.