Driky van Hensbergen

‘Moving back to Dorset, my childhood home, after a busy life in Bristol until very recently, it seems like life has come full circle. I was actually born in East Sussex in 1988, but in the mid 80s my parents had moved to central Spain, to a house in beautifully wild country near Segovia. My Dad’s a writer and art historian, and he wanted to write a book about Spanish food, so although I was born in England, from the age of about three months I lived in Spain. When I was four we came back, and lived at Burcombe Farm, North Poorton. In the contrasting scenery of the mountains of Spain, and a remote valley in West Dorset, I began to become immersed in the natural world at a very young age. I was encouraged in that direction by my Mum, and my friend Harry and I would explore the countryside freely as 4 year-olds. Spain of course is completely different; dry, hot in summer, and there are vultures, wild boar, and wolves in the area. And here there’s the sea, where I love to swim, so I’m lucky to have a sense of place in both Spain and England, as my family still have the house in Spain where we spend summers; this year is the first time we won’t be going. When I was seven we moved into Bridport, to Victoria Grove, which is where we stayed until I left home.
Both my grandfathers were scientists. One was a soil scientist, working all around the world, including the Bolivian jungle at the time the army were looking for Che Guevara. His group was once arrested because one of them had a beard and looked revolutionary. He was definitely an inspiration to me, so my interest in science does seem to have jumped a generation as the rest of my family are artistic. I have an uncle who’s a zoologist, and my youthful enthusiasm for animals led me to decide that was what I wanted to be, without knowing what becoming one entailed. I took science subjects at school, but didn’t get great A level results because I wasn’t always very focussed on work. I decided I wasn’t quite ready for university, and took a year out to go travelling with friends, spending five months volunteering in Chile, first on a sustainable forestry project, then another project monitoring puma populations, working with an ecologist tracking pumas on horseback, my first real experience of nature conservation in action. There I met David Macdonald, the founding director of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, a globally respected leader in the field of conservation. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and 10 years on, he’s now the chair of the charity I run. We also visited the Amazon rainforest, then went to New Zealand, worked on a sheep station, an avocado farm, and then hopped our way back to the UK. It was a formative year for me, I’m sure I did a lot of growing up.
I then spent three very happy years studying Zoology at Bristol University. I love Bristol as a city, and I’m really glad I went there instead of London. I found a love of learning through that course, and got a good degree. Moving back to Bridport I spent a year helping a friend, Nick Hill, with local conservation work for the Dorset Wildlife Trust, all good hands-on experience, helping me find my way to whatever came next. That was when I decided to do a Masters in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Management, at Oxford, which took a year. I learned a huge amount that year, particularly from the cohort of other people on the course, who were from all over the world, and started getting interested in environmental policy, corporate sustainability and business practices which were driving environmental issues. After the Masters course I got a job as sustainability advisor for the UK Timber Trade Federation.
My next job was for WWF, a massive global organisation, as Forest Policy Manager in their UK office. Our job was to try and influence the government and the EU to tighten loopholes in legislation around the importation of illegal and unsustainable timber. It was good experience of the intricacies and complexities of working with governments, and I travelled regularly to Brussels, Paris, and to Cambodia where I met all my counterparts from around the world. It was mid-austerity, around 2013, when the government was cutting a lot of funding to Defra who were heavily involved in this work, so at times it was quite dispiriting.
Two things happened while I was at WWF, which were connected. One was that I came back to Bridport to give a talk to students at Colfox school; the other was that I realised I wanted to work much more closely with people and issues at the grassroots. I had had enough of meeting with government minsters and civil servants and producing policy papers that were thrown out into the ether with a hope something good would happen in five years’ time. I wanted to feel the effects of my work first hand. So that was when I decided to set up the charity, Action for Conservation. I had realised that none of the big conservation NGOs were targeting their campaign at teenagers; a lot of work was aimed at young children, then for whatever reason nothing after the age of 12, in the expectation that they would somehow maintain interest through their teenage years, and environmentalists would pop out the other end. I felt that these were the very years when they could connect with nature and be empowered to take action to protect it, on a scale that was meaningful to them. So, at the talk at Colfox I was quite nervous and unsure whether the students would engage with the issues I planned to talk about. But what I found was interest, inspiration and loads of energy right through the room. I came away thinking that if we can only mobilise all these young people, that will be an amazing thing and we stand a chance in turning the situation around.
Twenty to thirty years ago people were more connected to the natural world around them, but in many ways unaware of the global changes already taking place. Now, largely through the internet, people are hyper-aware of issues like climate change and species extinction, but often can’t name the species that live in their street or the fields nearby. So, there’s a disconnect between the environmental improvements that can be made close to home, and the cumulative impact this can have in tackling the bigger issues. Working with some of the people I’d met on the Masters course, and building a network of volunteers, we began the work of the charity by going in to more schools to give talks, and that laid the foundations for what we do now. It is a challenge to keep a young person’s interest in environmentalism as they get older and other responsibilities occupy their thoughts and lives. But our mantra has always been to try and sow the seeds for the next generation of green builders, business people, politicians, and engineers. In other words, anyone can be an environmentalist. Alongside that we need to be a much, much more diverse and inclusive movement and this means creating opportunities for young people who don’t encounter these issues and making the sector more relevant to them and their lives.
In 2016 I left WWF to run the charity full time. It was also the year my wife Sophie and I got married—and moved house. We had appointed trustees, including the writer, Robert Macfarlane. I had asked him for donations of his books as prizes for our crowdfunding campaign when we founded, and made a point of going to collect them in person, so I was able to really pester him about becoming a trustee. He has been a real friend and source of support, as have all our wonderful trustees, and works very hard for us despite being a very busy person.
We are now a national charity with three offices across the country, Bristol, Manchester and London, with a team of paid staff and a large network of over 100 volunteers delivering our programmes. We offer workshops at schools to support students in taking action for nature, and organise residential camps taking young people of different ages into National Parks and giving them a fully immersive and transformative experience. To maintain the inspiration a young person may have experienced on a camp when they get home, often back in the city, we mentor all camp attendees for a further year, helping to drive a youth movement for nature. Our latest ventures include an online programme for young people stuck at home during lockdown, and the Penpont Project, the world’s first, world’s largest, youth-led nature restoration project in the Brecon Beacons, a collaboration between 20 of our young ambassadors and the landowner and tenant farmers on a 2000 acre estate.
Recently, I have been finishing a book for young people called How You Can Save the Planet, that will be published by Penguin early next year. In it are step by step guides to taking action wherever you are, and the stories of 13 young people around the world who have, often in quiet and humble ways, done something wonderful for their environment. And Sophie and I had our first child, Ludo, seven months ago, so we’re glad to be in Dorset for the start of his young life. Life after the pandemic will be different for all of us. Let’s hope it can be greener.’