The Wainwright Prize 2020 – Interview with Craig Bennett CEO of The Wildlife Trusts


Interview with Craig Bennett

CEO The Wildlife Trusts

The Global Conservation Prize


On Friday 5th June the longlist for the 2020 Wainwright Prize was announced. This year for the first time there are two prizes.

The Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing:

Specifically, for nature writing, the outdoors or travel covering Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Robert Macfarlane won the 2019 prize with Underworld.

There are thirteen books that make up this year’s longlist. The judging panel will be chaired by TV presenter Julia Bradbury, and her fellow judges are: Geoff Duffield, Wildlife Trust volunteer and former publisher; Andrew Willan, Wealden Festival Director; Patrick Neale, Bookseller Jaffe & Neale; Jessica J Lee, Editor WillowHerb Review; Celia Richardson, Director Comms and Insight, National Trust.

The Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation:

A new prize for this year that focuses on studies relating to conservation or climate change as it affects nature. The writing can be global not just on UK.

There are eleven books that make up the longlist this year. The Chair of Judges for the new Global Conservation Prize is BBC Countryfile presenter, Charlotte Smith. She is joined by Chris Packham, naturalist and TV presenter; John Lewis Stempel, previous winning author; Adrian Phillipps, conservationist; Rachel Woolliscroft, sustainability expert; and Craig Bennett, CEO UK Wildlife Trusts.

I am delighted to be joined on my blog by the new CEO of the UK Wildlife Trusts, Craig Bennett who joined the Wildlife Trust in April of this year. Craig is one of the judging panel on this year’s Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation.

Interview with Craig Bennett

CEO The Wildlife Trusts

JF: Congratulations on being part of the judging panel for this year’s     Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing. This year sees the first Global Conservation Prize as part of the Wainwright Prize. There are eleven books on the longlist. Do you have to read all eleven books on the longlist?

CB: Well, yes, we certainly have to give all eleven books a fair shot!

I’ve always had to read a lot in my job, from policy reports and briefings, to longer reports and so I’ve developed a two-speed reading process; fast for getting an overview, slow to properly absorb and enjoy it.

 I looked through the long-list using my fast-reading approach. I’m now taking time to slow-read the shortlist, and I’m enjoying the process immensely.

JF: The Global Conservation Prize is chaired by Countryfile presenter Charlotte Smith along with Chris Packham, twice winner of the Wainwright Prize, John Lewis-Stempel, Adrian Phillipps, Rachel Woolliscroft, because of the current lockdown conditions how are you and your fellow judges getting together to talk through the books on the longlist? Has this been a challenge for the panel?

CB: In the early stages, we worked quite independently to whittle down the original longlist and there was a surprising degree of consensus. But of course we’re going to have to hold round-table like discussions on Zoom to decide the winner. I suspect, they are going to be difficult discussions!

JF: The quality of nature writing in the UK is continuing to grow year on year, and also for books on the environment, as part of the panel of judges what do you look for in a book that could take it to the shortlist? Do you get a remit as to what to look for in each of the books?

CB: This is a new category for the Wainwright Prize and we’ve been told its purpose it to recognise books that “…that further the debate, increase the necessity for action or raise the profile of various conservation issues and address some of the very real problems of climate change”.

But, obviously, the winner will be one that does this while also displaying literary quality, dexterity and an entertaining pull of the narrative.

Personally, I’ll be looking for some good old fashioned story-telling and a little bit of quirkiness that makes me think some original thoughts, to separate out the eventual winner.

For me, that’s the difference between a book, and a report.

JF: As CEO of the Wildlife Trusts, the environment is now quite rightly a big news story, how important is the new Global Conservation Prize in highlighting the environment to people and to the news agenda?

CB: This prize certainly helps in raising the overall profile of the environment to book-lovers and in the wider media. But, as much as anything, I think it helps to keep the debate fresh, and provides a forum for new issues and themes to be discussed and debated. That’s critically important.

JF: You have recently been appointed as Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trusts and in a year that no-one could have predicted the Covid-19 pandemic that spread across the world. How has this affected the Wildlife Trusts on an operating basis across the 46 nature charities and also managing the reserves?

CB: Actually, I don’t think it’s right to say no one could have predicted the pandemic.

Not the specific circumstances, perhaps, but scientists have been predicting for decades that the fragmentation and loss of wildlife habitats – particularly in the tropics – through deforestation, agriculture, mining, roads, and other infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of and trade in wildlife species was creating a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.

As with the climate and biodiversity crises, recent pandemics like Ebola, SARS, MERS and now COVID are a direct consequence of human activity. And, as with all of these, we were warned but ignored those warnings.

If we don’t learn the lessons from this, humanity is just going to lurch from one crisis to the next.

Yes, it’s been a difficult period for us at The Wildlife Trusts. The lockdown has resulted in a big loss of income and we had to furlough many staff at the same time that people have been seeking solace in nature, and visits to many of our thousands of reserves have increased.

There have been many challenges, but I hope one of the strange silver linings of this period is that perhaps many now have a greater appreciation of the importance of nature for people’s mental and physical wellbeing.

JF: I cannot think of anytime in my life that nature has been so important to each of us during the pandemic whether listening to the dawn chorus of a morning or out walking as a family watching wildlife, how important would you say is nature to our mental health and also our general wellbeing during these difficult times?

CB: We’ve known for a long time that contact with nature is important for people’s physical and mental wellbeing. Research has shown that patients recovering from operations recover more quickly it they have a view of nature from their hospital window, and also that the amount of greenspace in urban areas is linked to differences in life expectancy.

But this connection between people’s wellbeing and nature has become something of a hot topic during lockdown, as millions of people took steps to ensure they got their daily does of nature whether it was walking to a local nature reserve, spending time in their garden, or connecting online. At The Wildlife Trusts, visits to our wildlife webcams increased 2000% during lockdown, and this year a record 600k people participated in our #30DaysWild initiative during June where we invited people to consciously connect to nature in some way, every day, during the month.

Research from Leeds University has shown that many people taking part in #30DaysWild report an improvement in their mental wellbeing for up to two months afterwards.

JF: As the new CEO of the Wildlife Trusts what are your future aims and goals for both wildlife and also the environment?

CB: We like to think we live in a green and pleasant land but sadly the truth is that we live in one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. Forty one percent of our wildlife species have suffered sharp declines in abundance since the early 1970s, and many species that were once common are now rare.

It’s not good enough just to talk about conserving what we have; we need to reverse these declines and put nature into recovery, and help create robust, flourishing, fully functioning ecosystems at landscape scale once again.

At The Wildlife Trusts, we’ve now committed to an aim of getting at least 30% of our land and sea being managed for nature’s recovery by 2030; creating more space for nature, and protecting and connecting those areas to bring our wildlife back.

We want this to be happening everywhere; in our uplands and lowlands, on land and sea, in towns, cities and countryside, and in a way that allows nature to help us tackle both the causes and consequences of climate change.  And while improving the physical and mental wellbeing of millions of people.

JF: As the country moves out of the lockdown, is it time for the government to put a green agenda to the forefront to the UK’s recovery?

CB: Yes, and more to the point, it would be disgraceful for them to do anything else.

Given all the evidence of how unsustainably we were living before, it would be madness to simply restart the economy exactly as it was before. We need to upgrade and reboot the economy into a sustainable, circular and regenerative economy, where we stop investing in economic activity that destabilises the climate and destroys nature, and start investing at scale in economic activity that cuts carbon and puts nature into recovery.

“The irony is that many aspects of lockdown have shown us how to do it; from the importance of super-fast broadband, to pop up cycleways, to local shops and supply chains, to local nature and greenspace, and – of course – communities looking after each other. There are so many positive examples of how to build back better, with emphasis on the ‘better’ and not the ‘build’.”

JF: Do you have a favourite wildlife moment to share with readers?

CB: Last summer, we had a week’s holiday sailing on The Norfolk Broads and one afternoon, an otter popped its head up in the water about 15 metres ahead of our boat, and then swam alongside us for ten seconds or so.

It was only the briefest of encounters, but truly magical.

And it probably wouldn’t have happened if organisations like The Wildlife Trusts hadn’t campaigned to protect otters when their numbers were in fast decline because of hunting and pesticide pollution in the 1970s and 1980s.

JF: Final question! For anyone who is reading this and has discovered nature during the lockdown period, what would you say to them about encouraging them to continue exploring nature and the environment as we move forward?

CB: Don’t stop! There is so much more to discover! At The Wildlife Trusts, we have more nature reserve than McDonalds has restaurants in the UK – one thousand more to be precise. And 60 percent of the British population live within three miles of a Wildlife Trust nature reserve.

Furthermore, nature is all around us, and even if you live in a flat with no garden – just space for a window box, you can take action for nature by planting bee friendly plants and enjoy watching the bees come and visit.

If you’re not a member, join with the 850,000 that are, and become a member of your local Wildlife Trust, and we’ll keep you updated with information and things to do. And you’ll get ever more hooked!

My grateful thanks to Craig Bennett for giving his time to be interviewed for The Last Word Book Review.

The Shortlist for The Wainwright Prize will be announced on Thursday 30th July with the winner being announced on 9th September. Sadly, due to the ongoing Corvid-19 pandemic the announcement of the winner will not be held at the BBC Countryfile Live event as this has since been cancelled. Further details of the virtual or digital announcement will be made soon.

The prize is supported by White Lion Publishing, publisher of the Wainwright Guides, the Wainwright Estate and in partnership with the National Trust. The £5000 prize fund will be shared and presented to the authors of the winning books.

More details about The Wainwright Prize and previous winner can be found here:


My thanks to Ruth Cairns at Featherstone Cairns for her help in arranging the interview with Craig Bennett:

John Fish

©The Last Word Book Review

3 thoughts on “The Wainwright Prize 2020 – Interview with Craig Bennett CEO of The Wildlife Trusts

  1. I’ll have to add some of those books to my list. I haven’t done the 30 days wild challenge but I did my own 365 day challenge! That was tough but it was a great achievement and definitely benefited my mental health.


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