Frustrated by political indifference toward wildlife protection in the UK, Adrian Cooper took matters into his own hands. He explains how social media helped create a grassroots nature reserve in his area
The most powerful force for change in modern society comes from us, the people. We have a collective talent and a body of passion for our communities, which far surpasses the will of governments or giant corporations. It is people power that will prevail when our communities are in greatest need.
During the debate leading up to the general election in May 2015, there was no mention among the mainstream political parties about the decline in wildlife populations. It was that silence which caused me to start our community nature reserve: a grassroots response to political indifference about wildlife conservation.
In this age of the internet, small communities can have vast international impact. So in May 2015, in the small coastal town of Felixstowe, in the south east of England, I started a conservation group called Felixstowe’s Community Nature Reserve. Initially it was with my partner Dawn Holden but we were joined by a growing team of volunteers.
When most people think about nature reserves, they imagine wide open spaces such as Yosemite or Yellowstone. But for an independent voluntary organisation working at the community level, it is simply not practical to buy such a large area of land. I had to rethink what our community nature reserve could be. Instead of being a single area of land, I decided that it could be composed of many small pieces of private gardens, allotments and window boxes. For birds, bees and other wildlife, a patchwork collection of small private green spaces presents a wonderful new set of habitats in which they can find shelter.
So the nature reserve became a network of these small green spaces, in which people can grow wildlife-friendly plants as well as creating ponds, insect lodges, hedgehog houses and bird nesting boxes— all with the aim of stopping the decline in wildlife populations. By piecing together smaller sites in this way, our project is relevant to many other communities all over the world.
For birds, bees and other wildlife, a patchwork collection of small private green spaces presents a wonderful new set of habitats in which they can find shelter
Listening to the community
So how did we do it? Immediately after those UK elections, I started meeting with local government leaders as well as community members. For about six months, I listened to people’s ideas, learning what might be possible and gathering a small team of volunteers. Most people understood that wildlife populations in our neighbourhood were declining and they wanted to help, but they simply did not know how.
It was clear that getting hold of a single plot of land for any kind of nature reserve project in our area would take too long and be too complicated. I therefore decided to make participation as simple as possible. All I asked of people was for them to allocate at least three square yards (2.5sq m) of their gardens or allotments for wildlife-friendly plants, ponds, nesting boxes and insect lodges. We then set ourselves the goal, over five years, to encourage 1,666 people to take part. If each person allocated a patch of at least this size, it would give us a total area of 5,000 square yards (4,1280sq m) – the size of a football field.
Most of our growth has come from local people telling their family, friends and neighbours about our work. Those small meetings have mostly taken place in people’s homes. In fact, it is often agreed that the foundation of our success has been fuelled by coffee and cake – or pizza and ice cream!
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Harnessing the power of social media
By the end of October 2015, our team was in place. We then started a Facebook page to keep our growing number of members advised about wildlife-friendly plants and other information. Three times each week, a new plant was introduced to our rapidly growing membership. We started with rowan, barberry, firethorn, foxgloves, thyme, sunflowers, lavender, honeysuckle, ice plant, buddleia, evening primrose and purple loosestrife. There was something for everyone to enjoy.
Our social media presence attracted the attention of the TV presenter Chris Packham whose tweets about our project to his 175,000 followers produced a small avalanche of enquiries about our work.
One of our volunteers printed information posters about our work and aims that ended up on just about every community notice board in town. I also wrote several articles about our work for local magazines: for people who don’t use social media, this was an essential way to spread our news.
To stop our message sounding too ‘preachy’ we tried to mix comedy with conservation. With the help of Felixstowe TV [an online community video station], we made a spoof ‘breaking news’ film about declining populations of bees. We also made a ‘time machine’ comedy / conservation film.
Chris Packham’s tweets about our project produced a small avalanche of enquiries about our work
More seriously, it was important to encourage as many local people as possible to share their opinions about the importance of wildlife for them. We made a short film about that too. As well as being great fun to make, the films got a lot of people talking and thinking about our community nature reserve.
Felixstowe’s Community Nature Reserve has become well known. So far, we’ve received messages from 659 people who said they had planted at least one of the plants we had recommended. We are thrilled with the take up of our ideas. Our work continued by highlighting plants that grow berries and other seasonal fruit: hawthorn, yew, alder buckthorn, elder, berberis, holly, rowan, spindle, dogwood and wild privet.
Bridging the generations
Young people are the future of every sustainable community project. Felixstowe’s Community Nature Reserve is a long term project so it is essential to involve local young people: the next generation of wildlife-friendly gardeners and conservationists. We enlisted a brilliant young student as our youth representative. Luke Smout was only 18 when we first met him but his maturity, environmental awareness and motivation are far beyond his years. Luke championed our work among his peers and helped us create our video series. Many other young people have since become involved.
These pieces of land transformed into conservation spaces, now add up to almost 2,000 square yards (1,672sq m) of new wildlife-friendly habitat.
But the good news hasn’t stopped there. The Leicestershire village of Cosby decided to copy our model to develop their own community nature reserve. We have also been asked by community groups to advise on the greening of Southampton. It’s been our pleasure to help.
Back in Felixstowe, there are so many examples of inspirational contributions to our community nature reserve. Among them, Dawn showed that a wildlife-friendly pond can be as simple as an old water butt lid. Katie chose to introduce a splash of dazzling colour by growing creeping red thyme in the wildlife-friendly section of her garden. Lucy chose to concentrate on introducing different types of heather in her garden to attract as many bees as possible. Her beautiful close-up photos were posted on our Facebook page.
Being a window box owner, Daphne had limited space for her wildlife friendly garden so she chose to grow as many herbs as possible.
Growing through learning
We have always listened to our local community through small group meetings in people’s homes. These meetings have thrown up wonderful new ideas, such as a plant swap club in which people can exchange wildlife-friendly plants and plant pots. We’ve also met all kinds of people who contribute in unique ways. As an example, local poet Tim Gardiner shares some of his work on our Facebook page to enrich our project. No one is excluded from contributing to our nature reserve, whether they own land or not. Even window box owners are encouraged to take part: they can grow herbs, crocus, snowdrops and much else.
As our work has expanded, we have been delighted to join other conservation groups. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society, for example, has supplied us with leaflets to distribute while the Suffolk Ornithologist’ Group has encouraged its members to start community nature reserves in their own parts of the county.
In this age of the internet, small communities can have vast international impact
We have received lots of wonderful advice from the Suffolk Biodiversity Information Service, as well as the Blue Campaign, Rewilding Britain and many others. In each case, we share web links to the organisations on our Facebook page, so our members can learn more about community-based conservation. We love to learn!
Among our most frequently offered pieces of advice is the need for group leaders to spend time listening to and encouraging their community at small, face-to-face meetings. All that listening and persuading takes time and effort, but the results? They will be worth the wait.
Visit Felixstowe’s Community Nature Reserve Facebook page to find out more
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