Today’s champion of the environment is a person hidden from wide public consciousness even though the charity he founded, The Woodland Trust, has grown in size and impact throughout the United Kingdom and consistently acknowledges its debt to the vision of its founder. Kenneth “Ken” Watkins OBE (1909 – 1996) founded The Woodland Trust in 1972 and chaired it for 21 years. The Trust has grown from its small beginnings to be the United Kingdom’s largest woodland conservation charity.
Watkins had a deep commitment to conservation especially of trees and woodlands. In an obituary in 1996 colleague Ian Mercer described him as “the driving force of the Devon Naturalists’ Trust, which began in the early sixties” (1). He was then running the Devon Trust’s acquisitions programme. His successful business, a leading producer of agricultural machinery in Devon, south-west England, provided funds for much of the conservation work. He also made films about woodlands in the early 1960s and was a runner-up in the BBC’s Natural History Film Awards in 1962. Watkins became increasingly concerned at the decline of woodlands in the countryside. Many woods and copses had been cleared to increase agricultural production. There was a need for a wider conservation body specifically for woodlands.
“Woodland was under threat. I thought there should be a trust which would buy up land and manage it properly” (Ken Watkins in interview with The Observer, 1992) (2)
With his wife Mary Clayton he drew together a small team consisting of friends Oliver Rossetti, Henry Hurrell, MBE, and Stanley Edgcumbe, and they set about purchasing woods to conserve and protect them. Within 5 years they had acquired 22 woods in six counties of south-west England.
Ken Watkins’ story impresses me as an example of how one person with a passion for the environment who is prepared to dedicate time and resources and to persuade others to join the cause in support, can make a significant and lasting difference for good.
Watkins was honoured with an MBE in 1971 and an OBE in 1989 for services to conservation. He received the Sir Peter Scott Memorial Award from the British Naturalists’ Association in 1995.
- (1) His obituary by colleague Ian Mercer
“Heart of the woodlands: Obituary of Kenneth Watkins.” Guardian [London, England], 9 Dec. 1996, p. 11. Infotrac Custom Newspapers Accessed 5 Sept. 2017.
- (2) Bailey, M. (1992, Jul 05). Guardians of the woods who stop the chainsaw massacres. The Observer (1901- 2003) Retrieved 5th Sept 2017