By Dr Tony Whitbread
I retired as the Trust’s Chief Executive in July last year and I considered it an enormous honour when Sean Ashworth, Chairman of Trustees contacted me in May asking me to take on the role of President of the Trust. I have to say I was more than delighted to accept the appointment.
David Streeter, our previous President, retired two years ago after more than six decades associated with the Trust. He was one of a small group of inspirational leaders who originally set up the Trust in 1961 and one of the greatest academic (and practical) ecologists in the county. He will be a hard act to follow.
The role of President is a great responsibility, bearing in mind the huge pressure that wildlife is under in Sussex and globally. We should not underestimate the challenging times that we live in. Whilst there are many good examples that buck the trend, the tide of wildlife loss is far from being turned. Concern about wildlife loss has now spiralled into nothing less than a wildlife and environmental emergency. The great weight of international scientific opinion is that our very life support systems are threatened, and time is fast running out. At a time when science is so often ignored, the voice of reason may sound alarmist, and practical conservation action may be increasingly cast as “activism”.
My background is as an ecologist and passionate advocate for nature. As a leading nature conservation organisation, I see advocacy – speaking up for nature – as a key part of the Trust’s mission. There are, however, many organisations who speak out on environmental matters so the Trust should contribute in its own special way. How should the President of the Trust behave alongside this spectrum of other voices?
We describe our particular niche in the Sussex Wildlife Trust strategy “A Vision for Nature and Wellbeing in Sussex”. This articulates how the character of the Trust lies in the middle ground between many of our partners: we are local but tuned to national issues. We carry out practical conservation action and also engage people with nature. We are strongly scientific, but also inspire with stories. We make a strong nature conservation case but are not as outspoken as the campaigning non-government organisations, nor as constrained as government bodies. In summary, we are a challenging wildlife charity, but one that is the voice of reason, embedded in science and practical nature conservation.
In my view the Trust has an increasing responsibility to speak up for wildlife and the environment. This will only become more pressing in the coming years. As President I will endeavour to take on my part of that responsibility.