Meet Generation Restoration: Iona Haines

Posted: 9th January 2024

Photo: Chris Patrick

We are in the midst of an environmental crisis, and the next ten years are crucial to avert climate change and to halt the irreversible loss of habitats and species. Restoration provides an opportunity to repair the damage caused. Since 2018, the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme has supported the delivery of restoration projects across Europe. These are led and driven on the ground by dedicated and inspirational teams including young people who are key to restore our landscapes and seascapes for generations to come. This series of articles is focussed on #GenerationRestoration and the youth that are driving change on the ground.

This week we are talking to the ELSP’s own Communications and Network Coordinator, 26-year-old Iona Haines. Her job involves handling the ELSP’s communications, including our website and social media, with the aims of promoting our projects as an inspirational showcase of what can be achieved with sufficient funding and motivation, as well as exchanging the knowledge accrued by the projects. There is a lot to communicate, and her tasks include working with our web developer to update the website, supporting the development of publications like the annual review and writing inspiring news stories.

Photo: Miles Haines.

How did you become interested in conservation and restoration?

Like most people working in this field, I have had a lifelong fascination with the natural world. With a scientific curiosity combined with a love of all creatures great and small, I carefully tried to understand how to care for the animals close to me: spiders, snails, and earthworms. I watched documentaries on faraway lands filled with humid rainforests, orangutans, and importantly, passionate, and fearless conservationists, quickly realising that urgent action was needed to protect nature.

Photo: Iona Haines.

Very early on, I also developed a passion for photography, going on walks with my grandad who rarely is out without a camera in his hands. I read National Geographic magazines and dreamed about the natural wonders that I could see and photograph when I was old enough.

I studied biology for my undergraduate degree and for my master’s I researched how butterfly and moth life history strategies are affected by climate. After this, I worked as the coordinator of Ape Alliance, an ape conservation and welfare organisation, for around four years before starting at the ELSP. It was really the ELSP that showed me how incredible restoration is as a method to heal our planet. I also spent some time volunteering at a wildlife rescue centre, helping to care for animals like hedgehogs.

Photo: Chris Patrick.

What inspires you and how do you stay optimistic about the future?

Restoration itself provides an optimistic narrative about the future of our planet. I like to think of it as rebuilding the boat rather than bailing the water out of a sinking ship. When you see what the ELSP projects are achieving in relatively short time frames you can’t help but be inspired. This summer, I was able to visit the Greater Côa Valley project in Portugal and got to feel the buzz and excitement surrounding rewilding that has been building throughout the region. Our project partners Rewilding Portugal have thought of some incredibly innovative solutions to issues in the landscape. For example, the slow comeback of wolves can cause conflict with local farmers. Rewilding Portugal has initiated a wolf guarding dog scheme, and rolled out portable electric fences, allowing farmers to protect their livestock in non-lethal ways. They have also partnered with a shoe company to purchase wool from “wolf-friendly” farmers at a premium price. There are countless examples from the projects of incredible work and innovative thinking that I get to share with the world as part of my job.

Sorraia horses at a rewilding site in Portugal. Photo: Iona Haines.

On top of this, the individuals I’ve met along my journey continue to be a source of inspiration to me. With such bleak outlooks on the future of our planet, it is wonderful to see so many fiercely motivated people working towards a better future. You can see how an individual has so much power both through globally known conservation idols like Dr Jane Goodall and through peers and colleagues, who each make their own differences every day.

The ELSP is based in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI), which is a coalition of ten world-leading conservation organisations and the University of Cambridge. Working in a space full of people working tirelessly on a huge range of projects is a major source of inspiration. Walking into the building, you are greeted by a quote from Sir David Attenborough saying, “there are few things more important in the world today than what you are doing here”. It’s easy to read that and think “how is me sitting down at my desk and typing away one of the most important things in the world today?”. But, we must remember that we all hold power to make change.

Photo: Chris Patrick.

I’ve heard it described as the “3 Ps”: we each have power from our purchasing, we can hold companies and governments accountable with what we choose to buy or not buy; in democratic societies we all have political power, as politicians need your votes to win elections they should listen to you as their constituents if you speak loudly enough; and finally personal power, where you have the power to make change as an individual, maybe through working in conservation or even something as simple as throwing away your rubbish properly so it doesn’t harm wildlife. Remembering that I have power, and that my everyday actions hold weight, allows me to remain optimistic.

I think back to the memorial of conservationist, primatologist, and animal welfare advocate Dr Shirley McGreal that I attended in 2022, where it was shared that Shirley had retained an incredible capacity for outrage at injustice throughout her entire life. As a child it’s easy to keep a sense of what is fair and right, and protest against it. As we become older, we understand the nuances of life better, and it can be easy to lose that sense of outrage if we think something is not right. Keeping at least some of this capacity for outrage will keep us motivated.

Perhaps that is what we need: optimism in the form of remembering our power and witnessing incredible triumphs in the form of restoration and conservation wins, and motivation in the form of sustained outrage at the injustices that are destroying our planet.

Visiting the gibbons (and otters!) in the International Primate Protection League’s sanctuary in Summerville, South Carolina and learning about the amazing things that Dr Shirley McGreal has accomplished reinforced to Iona that we can make a difference for conservation and animal welfare. Photo: Alden Goodwin.

Do you think that young people feel connected to the natural world?

It’s a difficult question because everyone is different and of course “young people” aren’t a homogenous group.

I think that many people are increasingly disconnected from the natural world. On social media, we are often fed imagery of nature as our plaything, existing for our consumption. For example, it is so easy to open TikTok or Instagram and see countless videos of wild animals dressed up in clothes and being cuddled and bathed by humans. We need to shift the perception of nature as being ours to keep and consume, to being ours to appreciate and protect. Only then will the natural world be able to continue to provide us with the ecosystem services that we need to survive.

It is also hard to maintain a connection with nature in modern life. Even for someone like me who loves and tries to understand nature, I work in an office and over the winter when it is dark so early (and very cold and wet!), the only time when I can experience natural environments is the weekends. This is why I advocate for noticing the little things: how a spider behaves in the corner of your bedroom, or how a fallen leaf glistens with frost under your bike light.

Finding joy and connection with nature does not have to involve long trips and technical equipment. Nature is all around us, even in the middle of a city. Photo: Iona Haines.

This is where communication comes in. It can be difficult to care about something that we don’t understand and can’t see. But once we learn more about nature, we realise our innate connection with it. We are not separate from the natural world, but a part of it. Even on cold winter nights, nature documentaries or social media content can bring excitement and fascination with nature into our warm homes. It just needs to be done in a non-exploitative way.

On the other hand, I’ve met countless young people who care deeply about the natural world. The ELSP project teams are made up of passionate individuals, including many young people, several of which I’ve interviewed for this series. I have friends who work in policy advocacy for organisations like the UN or Fauna & Flora, who are researching carbon credits at the University of Cambridge, who are incredible storytellers using social media or film to help people to engage with nature, and who care so deeply about the natural world that they are devastated by the destruction that they witness.

Is getting the younger generation involved important for restoration?

Each generation must pass the torch to the generations coming after them. Conservation and restoration projects take time. For example, Cairngorms Connect talk about their “200-year vision”. This will not be achieved without the involvement of the current younger generation, but also those yet to be born. We must all feel responsible for our planet, and this includes current and future young people.

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