It is my great pleasure to give the oration to mark the award of an Honorary Fellowship of the University of Essex to John Hall, MBE, DL.
John was born in Yorkshire and studied Zoology at the University of Oxford. Today he lives in Langenhoe, south of Colchester, and is a Deputy Lieutenant of Essex. He has recently retired – after 28 years as Chief Executive of the Essex Wildlife Trust. In that time, the Trust was transformed into a highly-respected and effective conservation charity.
Essex Wildlife Trust was founded in 1959, just at the time that many people across the industrialised world were recognising that modern economies were damaging landscapes, wildlife and the environment. Rachel Carson was working on her Silent Spring at the time. The Trust, though, began to do something quite different. Instead of campaigning to stop things, it set about taking practical actions to make improvements.
This is always much harder to do. It started at Fingringhoe gravel works in 1961, a couple of miles by campus crow from us here. It was a blasted site, the regolith like the surface Apollo 11 astronauts would land on eight years later. Fingringhoe Wick is now one of the finest reserves in the country, let alone county of Essex – and most notable for nightingales. Later came Tollesbury and Abbots Hall, where holes were punched in river walls to create new wetlands, the first such projects in the country. A new initiative is doing the same on the Colne just across the river from Wivenhoe.
Today, Essex Wildlife Trust manages and protects more than 8000 acres of land in 87 nature reserves and 2 nature parks. It has built 10 visitor centres. It has 34,000 members in the county. Under John’s leadership, the Trust grew from 5 permanent members of staff in 1987 to 120 today – clear evidence that looking after the environment is good for the economy!
Essex Wildlife Trust is a leading member of the national Wildlife Trusts movement, with 47 county and national trusts across the UK. One in 70 of the UK population are members.
At the University, we care deeply about transformative education. John, too, led the Trust to engage in education by realising that the wildlife of Essex should inspire young people. Its thriving education programme engages with 60,000 children each year, bringing them into wild places with barn owls and bats, adders and avocets, crested newts and orchids, rare oxlips and heath horses. The Trust also has 2000 regular volunteers and 450 companies as members.
We at the University have excellent links with the Trust, undertaking important research together – the work on protecting the native oysters on the Blackwater was featured recently on BBC TV’s popular Countryfile. Dr Leanne Hepburn is currently a Trustee; I too was a trustee, and honoured now to be Vice President.
John was appointed an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2015 for services to wildlife, an award richly deserved.
Let me finish with one short story. In 2013, 120 acres of Thurrock Thameside Nature Park and its space-station visitor centre were officially opened. For any resident of south Essex or visitor to Coalhouse Fort, Linford or Mucking, you will remember this region for something else: the greatest rubbish tip in southern Britain, where huge tractors were ants on a mountain of London waste, where plastic caught in every hedgerow, and houses rattled to the roar of passing trucks, one a minute.
The tip was topped, recovered, plants grew, animals came. This day of opening, John and I introduced Sir David Attenborough to 1500 visitors. David Attenborough, bent by years and dishevelled by wind, waved his arms and proudly said: “this place, these people, have turned around time’s arrow.” Visitors grinned and held up mobile phones. It is now one of the finest nature parks in Essex, and will expand in time to 850 acres – a great place to watch nature, and the passing giant ships on the Thames.
John’s passion for conserving the natural world and ensuring we share this with people young and old has made Essex a better place to live. Better for wildlife and for the people of Essex.
It is for this reason we are delighted to bestow the title of Honorary Fellow on John Hall.
Chancellor (Shami Chakrabaty): I present to you John Hall.
Professor Jules Pretty OBE
Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Essex