Academic ecologist and founder member of the Sussex Wildlife Trust David Streeter MBE spent much of his career encouraging an interest in natural history amongst young people. After stepping down as Sussex Wildlife Trust President in 2017, an annual award was set up in his name, which has the purpose of supporting a young person making an outstanding contribution to conservation in Sussex.
The first David Streeter Award winner is wildlife artist Jamie Burston, so we speak to him about what the award means to him:
Tell us a bit about yourself
I grew up in Brighton and still live here, in Hollingbury, with the South Downs National Park on my doorstep. My parents nurtured my interest in wildlife, whilst we spent time in our garden. I vividly remember a row of nasturtium plants, covered in Large White caterpillars. The fragrance of nasturtiums takes me back to that moment. A key part of my childhood was visiting rock pools at Ovingdean Gap. This sparked my young imagination to wonder what creatures might live there.
What does nature and conservation mean in your life now?
Nature can be what you need it to be. To me, it is freedom, being present in the moment, finding peace of mind, and a form of escapism. Right now I'm re-connecting with nature, having taken time away, due to poor mental health. I love the thrill of the challenge, the unexpected - and the discoveries that come with it. More than anything, nature is about sharing experiences with friends.
Conservation is about collaboration. I've collaborated on projects with or advised the Sussex Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation - Sussex Branch, South Downs National Park Authority, National Trust, Seaford Tree Wardens, local councils, schools and colleges.
Collaborating with partners can elevate the impact of the conservation work you do, through practical habitat management to sharing knowledge. I did all this as a volunteer, and there's nothing stopping anyone else doing the same.
How did you come to develop a particular interest in the White-letter Hairstreak butterfly?
I went to a Butterfly Conservation-led guided walk, which introduced me to the White-letter Hairstreak butterfly. I discovered the species has a special connection to where I live - which is within the National Elm Collection of Brighton and Hove. The White-letter Hairstreak is an under-recorded species in Sussex and its life-cycle is sparsely documented. So I found a study site and closely observed the hairstreak's life-cycle for three years, picking up valuable knowledge and insight into their behaviour, including how they use their host elm tree. The outcome, hosted by Butterfly Conservation - Sussex Branch, is here.
I dedicated time to surveying, finding and recording new colonies on the many local street elm trees. It was an exciting challenge, seeing the adult butterflies in the elm canopy and close up, taking nectar from flowers. I was charmed by their unique character and personality.
Then, I asked myself 'What can I do to conserve the species, and what is causing its decline?'
I realised that the impact of habitat loss from Dutch Elm Disease was at the forefront of their decline. I did my own research and befriended some of the UK's leading authorities in the research of disease-resistant elm varieties. This knowledge gave me a strong foundation to propose a conservation project based on research, observations and facts.
Tell us a bit more about your project.
The project saw 550 disease-resistant elm trees planted across 550 acres of the Lancing College Estate, to support existing populations of the White-letter Hairstreak butterfly within the local Adur valley landscape. What developed was exciting, a project which opened up opportunities to local children and people from all backgrounds and abilities to get involved in conservation and connect with nature.
Many schools, colleges and local community groups contributed their time to the project, planting elm whips and receiving educational classes on the natural history of the White-letter Hairstreak butterfly and elm trees, allowing them to feel more connected to their local landscape.
Two of the three elm varieties used in the project originate from Spain, as the effects of climate change were taken into consideration, with drier growing conditions forecast in the south-east region, where they have a better chance of adapting to changing temperatures.
This project was only possible due to collaboration and there were many people who supported and worked with me.
It is just of one of a number of projects I've been involved in, including one working with Michael Blencowe and Nikki Hills from Sussex Wildlife Trust, gaining public engagement to record the White-letter Hairstreak butterfly on elm trees in Seaford.
How did you feel when you heard you'd been given the David Streeter Award?
I was shocked but also honoured, especially as other people wanted my volunteer work to be recognised in such a way. Then to discover I was to be the very first recipient of the award was a great surprise.
Which 'prize' did you choose?
The gift vouchers for the Natural History Book Service website. I have my eye on a Moth Trap and Bat Detector.
Who are your heroes?
Greta Thunberg is inspiring for many reasons. However, my real personal heroes are the people that I've got to know from the age of 16, through 10 years of volunteering in conservation, who have become friends. It's these friends in conservation, and their support, that has propelled me to where I am today. It's a team effort, we inspire each other.
Friends are the best kind of heroes in your life and I'm lucky to have a very supportive family in all that I do. The dedication of volunteers is heroic, and without them, conservation work wouldn't be able to function.
What's your favourite place to see wildlife?
Roedale Valley Allotments in Brighton. I manage a plot on site, primarily for butterflies but it caters for a wider range of wildlife. It is when I survey or explore the whole allotment that you see how rich and beneficial allotments can be as a habitat for supporting biodiversity. You see a whole host of wildlife, from small containers of water supporting frogs, to damselflies and dragonflies. Reptiles like Common Lizard bask openly if you are cautious. Birds are surprisingly approachable and there is always something new to see. Bees and butterflies live and breed on the allotment, it is the only place I've seen a Brimstone butterfly be dwarfed in size by a large Cardoon flower. Or an Adonis Blue butterfly settling amongst a bed of onions, it gives a sense of the surreal.
As darkness draws in you're joined by bats, Common Pipistrelles boldly fly within just a few feet of your face. I have no favourite season or time of day to visit the allotment, I enjoy what nature has to offer, as and when I see it.
Do you have any future plans you're happy to share?
Earlier this year I shared with my friends that I was gay. When I mentioned this on social media, I received overwhelming support and a sense of there being a wider awareness and visibility of LGBTQ+ people in conservation, with other people reaching out to me, forming new friendships. This gave me the idea to lead a guided walk in Brighton, openly inclusive to LGBTQ+ people, I plan to do this in 2020, themed around my knowledge of butterflies and the White-letter Hairstreak.
What would you say to a young person who might be interested in conservation but not sure how to go about doing something?
It might not be obvious, but conservation can start at home, I've seen first-hand that if you allow or provide for nature, the benefits will be seen. Knowledge is power, you could start by looking and recording what wildlife is in your garden or local area, this way you can discover what you are passionate about. Joining conservation groups in activities can greatly help you to build self-confidence, gain knowledge and learn practical skills through volunteering, which you can then apply at home or elsewhere. Let your passion lead you and make sure you're having fun, whilst challenging yourself to try things, it might just surprise you how suited you are to new activities.
Photo of the White-letter Hairstreak © Jamie Burston.