26th January 2023
As multiple and interlinking crises across food, nature and climate abound, it’s becoming clear there is a skills shortage in some of the critical sectors, from farming and forestry to conservation and eco-tourism. At the same time, over 300,000 young people aged 16-24 are unemployed across UK nations, with many bearing the brunt of a post-pandemic economy, the rising cost of living and the associated mental health pressures.
One proposed solution that has been in the pipeline for a number of years and is now gaining traction, is a National Nature Service (NNS) – which would both plug the current skills gap and empower the next generation to deal with the challenges ahead.
What does a National Nature Service look like? Critically, it has evolved beyond the niche of the conservation sector to encompass a variety of different green economy services, building a skilled and eco-literate workforce and supporting work of any kind that helps restore the natural environment.
In particular, it could involve connecting young people and those out of work or looking for a new opportunity with paid placements and apprenticeships, education, training, volunteering and enterprise support. And in the long-term, it could create a foundation for green entrepreneurship and business innovation, spark the transition to a green economy, and ultimately improve the health and wellbeing of our population.
- Katy Stevenson, Chief Executive, Groundwork Wales
An NNS would help restore our countryside and upskill current and future generations.
While a NNS that spans UK nations is also under discussion, a more regional or country-based approach could help meet the needs of local communities better and build more resilient regions. And Wales is leading the way. So far, the co-design of this ambitious and potentially transformative initiative has involved over 40 like-minded but diverse organisations.
These include Valleys Regional Park (VRP), a partnership of organisations working across the South Wales Valleys with a shared vision of a high quality, sustainable network of greenspace, and Groundwork Wales, a charity mobilising practical community action on poverty and the environment. Together, through the VRP Guardians scheme, they are helping people in the South Wales find routes into environmental and conservation work, providing targeted support and opportunities to those facing barriers to employment.
Rachel Knight was one of the participants in the VRP Guardians scheme. Like so many of her generation, her university experience was one marred by the Covid-19 pandemic: “I felt depressed and isolated from my peers, as we didn’t return to normal university life.”
After graduating with a BSc in Physical Earth Science, Rachel moved back to live with her parents but felt stuck and demotivated. But after searching online for volunteering opportunities, she found an environmental conservation project from the Guardians scheme.
“I definitely credit the VRP Guardians scheme for helping me get the practical skills I needed in order to get this job. Before volunteering, I couldn’t tell you how to change a drill bit, let alone construct an entire fence!” Rachel has now secured a job as a park ranger in the west of England.
There are high levels of unemployment in towns in the South Wales Valleys.
Another of the scheme's participants, Luke, gained valuable skills and experience areas like countryside management, woodland management and path construction by attending two sessions a week over six months at Dare Valley. Luke now works in one of the cafes in Dare Valley Country Park.
Luke and Rachel’s stories shows how a National Nature Service could help tackle multiple social, economic and environmental problems at the same time – like building a skilled green workforce, creating more accessible, inclusive career pathways for young people and reducing social isolation.
Katy Stevenson, Chief Executive of Groundwork Wales, is part of the strategic group leading on the development of the NNS in Wales: “The National Nature Service in Wales and across the UK offers an extraordinary opportunity to equip current and future generations with the skills they need to mitigate the challenges across the nature and climate emergencies, food and farming.”
She goes on to highlight the need for immediate action and our responsibility to both current and future generations. “It will support people of all ages who have been disadvantaged by decades of decline, an unstable economy and the covid-19 pandemic, and who will come to bear the difficulties that climate change and the dangerous loss of biodiversity present unless we act boldly, clearly and quickly. The National Nature Service is one of the most viable long-term solutions we have to create a greener, more equitable and liveable future for us, our children and all future generations.”
The Guardians scheme is also an important pilot project for the NNS and the VRP approach is being used as a template for delivery – establishing a network of highly visible and accessible parks and greenspaces on the doorsteps of local communities and a range of opportunities to engage, educate, upskill and inspire.
Phil Lewis is the Strategic Lead at VRP and is also part of the NNS development team. He is keen to emphasise the importance of place and shared histories in the creation of a National Nature Service for Wales. “The vision we have for the Valleys closely aligns with the ambitions for an NNS on a regional footprint. But it can only be realised through community involvement, an understanding of the impact of our industrial heritage and a shared pride in the changes that have taken place over the last half century.”
Phil adds that “we need to focus on developing the skills that support the continued improvement in our natural environment in a way that will underpin the social and economic regeneration of the Valleys. Learning from and building on the work delivered through the VRP Guardian Scheme in partnership with Groundwork Wales is essential as we shape the development of NNS.”
If you or your organisation is interested in working to develop a National Nature Service for Wales, you can get involved by registering below.