Where is the UK’s Youth Nature Conservation Movement? by Danny Heptinstall

Danny Heptinstall is a 24 year old birder, naturalist and aspiring conservationist currently researching red kites at the University of Aberdeen. Here he presents a shortened version of an article that asks“Where is the UK’s Youth Conservation Movement, and what can be done to find it?”


I’m a young conservationist, and I get annoyed every time I read a clichéd piece bemoaning the lack of young people in conservation. These pieces always seem to complain that conservation is becoming a sea of grey hair, yet they rarely provide any meaningful solutions to this problem. I couldn’t agree more that there is a problem. But, I get frustrated because I see so many steps that could be taken to solve it, yet never seem to be taken.

So with this guest blog I’m going to suggest what I think needs to be done to kick-start the creation of a UK youth conservation movement. These suggestions might be right, or they might be wrong, but I think we need to move the debate forward from simply complaining about the issue, to discussing how we are going to solve it.

But before a solution can be found, we first have to identify what the problem is. Simple, I hear you say, there’s fewer young people interested in natural history and conservation. You go to an evening lecture or a volunteer work day and it’ll be mostly older people attending. But is this really evidence of a problem?

Seemingly contradictory, there are currently thousands of students enrolled on conservation courses all over the UK. And most conservation vacancies are inundated with graduates looking for their first job. So, maybe there isn’t a problem after all?

Well I would agree conservation courses are full of young people who, once graduated, are applying for conservation jobs. But I’d argue most of these young people aren’t part of the UK conservation movement. Maybe a controversial statement, but how often do you see young people visiting nature reserves on their own initiative, running local conservation projects, or discussing the future of conservation? Given the number of young people enrolled on these courses, I reckon not as often as you might expect.

And to me, this is one of the biggest tragedies of modern UK nature conservation; we have literally thousands of young people who are making a very clear demonstration of their aspiration to become a conservationist. Yet, as far as I can see, no UK conservation organisation is making any strategic attempt to engage them.

And I think the reason for this, is that many UK conservationists simply do not understand the motivations of these young people.

Older conservationists generally spent much of their youth as a naturalist. But nowadays few young people spend time outside appreciating nature. However, many young people watch nature documentaries, have an environmentalist ethic, or enjoy outdoor activities. And I think it is these backgrounds that explain why so many young people find a career in conservation appealing, despite not having been a naturalist while at school.

However, this means many young people enrol on conservation courses having had almost no previous interaction with nature or the UK nature conservation movement. You may think universities will cover such topics but, in reality, they put very little emphasis on natural history or UK conservation.

Which is why I believe the UK conservation movement needs to do more to support aspiring young conservationists. If you consider that there isn’t even something as simple as a website that explains to young people how to get involved in conservation, is it really so surprising so few are part of the UK conservation movement?

To start this process of re-thinking how we engage young people, I suggest the following:

  • Initiate a National Youth Nature Conservation Forum – With the aim of creating a self-supporting community of 18-25 year olds who share an interest in nature and its conservation.
  • Organise an Annual National Youth Conservation Camp – This would allow young conservationists to interact with both their peer group and existing conservation professionals.
  • Provide a Website for Aspiring Young Conservationists – To provide information about UK conservation, as well as current volunteering opportunities.
  • Facilitate Mentoring by Existing Naturalists and Conservationists – A website that would link aspiring conservationists to expert naturalists who are willing to informally teach them about the conservation and identification of their taxa of interest.
  • Provide Free Issues of Conservation Magazines – to departments that teach conservation courses.
  • Undertake University Visits – Conservation NGO’s should employ staff to introduce UK nature conservation to conservation students and mobilise these students.
  • Restructure the UK Conservation Education System – Worthy of an article itself, I believe the disparate and varying quality of conservation education is a major barrier to the development of UK conservation.

Encouraging young people to get involved in conservation will undoubtedly be a challenge. But doesn’t it make sense to start by properly engaging the thousands of young people who have already signalled they want to contribute to conservation? Rather than solely focusing our limited resources on trying to persuade a largely uninterested youth that nature is worth fighting for.

This is a condensed version of a longer piece, if Danny’s got you thinking he would love you to read the full version here

Danny would happily discuss the above with any interested organisations or persons. More information about him can be found here he aims to blog hereand he can be contacted at djheptinstall@googlemail.com. This article first appeared on the brilliant blog by Mark Avery and was reproduced with the permission of the author.

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