A package arrived for me a few weeks ago containing a much anticipated and image rich little book on the history of the Woodland Trust, 50 years young this year. From Little Acorns… Unearthing the roots of Britain’s woodland conservation movement covers the first 25 years of that journey and has been written by the Trust’s first employee, and first chief executive, John James, with whom I worked closely for eight years between 1989 and 1997.
It’s always fascinating to see how others assess and reflect experiences and events with which you are personally familiar. John’s book, part personal memoir and part organisational history, will certainly take many long-serving Trust staff like myself, as well as trustees past and present, on a trip down memory lane, and will give those looking in from the outside a personal glimpse into the history of a conservation organisation, which caught the public imagination like few others during the 1970s and 1980s.
The book traces the early years of the Trust from when it was set up in 1972 as a breakaway from the Devon Naturalists’ Trust and run on a voluntary basis by its founder Kenneth Watkins and a group of colleagues for five years. By 1977 they needed a full-time member of staff and the Countryside Commission funded John’s post. He stayed for 20 years and oversaw the growth of the Trust from one employee to over a hundred and from a turnover of a few thousand pounds to one approaching £10 million.
Several recurring themes can be traced throughout the book – for example, Kenneth Watkins’ strong influence over the philosophy and approach of the Trust which remains in evidence even today – his light touch approach to woodland management has often been and continues to be misunderstood, sometimes wilfully so by the Trust’s critics. As well as this, John’s application of product marketing techniques and up to date technology to the cause of charity fundraising was highly novel at the time and gave the Trust a headstart in becoming financially stable.
Also of particular interest are the many insights into both the successes and strains of a rapidly growing conservation: the relationship between Chief Executive and the Management Committee of Trustees, which could be reluctant to move with the times and which was quite risk averse, was put to the test on several occasions. (These occasionally impacted on me my role as PR Manager as I vividly recall having to orchestrate the filming of an informal video of Kenneth Watkins and John together in the Avon Valley Woods for the Trust’s archives during a period of financial challenge in the early 1990s when you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife!)
It's clear that John keenly felt the personal challenges of managing a rapidly growing organisation, especially when he had been the only employee, and he describes these honestly including the ways by which he sought to address them. Other challenges that I was particularly aware of when I joined the Trust in 1989 were about to what extent the Trust should exercise influence over woods beyond those in its rapidly growing ownership and become much more of an externally facing advocacy focused organisation. That strategic shift eventually took place in 1998.
But it is also clear from reading the book how much the Trust played an important role in building momentum in the practical delivery of social and environmental benefits of woods and trees, through its early involvement and acquisitions in the National Forest, the Community Forests and Commission for New Towns woodland disposals, and in urban forestry and community engagement. These achievements deserve to be widely recognised.
Love it or loathe it, the Trust is now in the big league of environment NGOs in the UK. It has a huge following, a slick marketing and communications function, a substantial woodland estate from which to demonstrate its approach and a powerful role in campaigning for woodland protection at national and local level. Yet its advertising and sound bite style public facing promotion can often distract and frustrate the public and private forest sector from recognising its more serious evidence-based approach and engagement in key issues of the day such as citizen science, tree health, seed sourcing, and knowledge synthesis.
(Sweet woodruff, an ancient woodland indicator in the Trust's Lineover Wood, Gloucestershire)
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that without Kenneth Watkins’ and John James’s foundational achievements in setting up and nurturing the Trust towards its many early successes, there would have been far less progress towards woodland expansion, the protection and restoration of ancient woodland in the UK, and woods and trees would not be so embedded in the consciousness of the public.
In reflecting on what Kenneth Watkins might have thought of the Trust now, John ends the book by saying: “He had always accepted change and would probably have understood, even welcomed the growing trend [away from acquiring small woods]. After all it was saving and creating woodland that mattered. It was always all about the trees.”
To order a copy directly from the publishers click here.
You can find more background information gathered on the history of the Trust at: https://woodlandrescue.co.uk