Written by Hermione Pocock – Tees-Swale Community Engagement Trainee
I am this year’s Community Engagement trainee for the Tees-Swale: Naturally Connected Programme. My role at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority is to engage with schools, community groups and deliver community events in Swaledale.
I was offered an amazing opportunity to be part of the Youth with a Mission scheme which supplied a free ticket, accommodation and bike hire for the EUROPARC Conference in October 2023. This was for young people aged between 18-30 who work for protected landscapes or have an interest in the conversation sector.
The EUROPARC Federation was set up in 1973 and it works to improve the management of Protected Areas in Europe through exchanging ideas and experience, influencing policy and international cooperation. Due to this the cultural and natural heritage of these landscapes will be preserved.
This year’s conference was the 50th anniversary of EUROPARC. Throughout EUROPARC’s history, they have supported protected areas across Europe and provided a network between them.
The conference was held in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands. Leeuwarden is a picturesque city with a canal running through it. It hosted the walking forest project. 1,000 trees were moved around the city for 100 days in the summer of 2022. This shows the positive impact that trees have in urban places. Read more about this research on ‘The Dirt’ website here.
During the conference, I got to connect with people from different protected areas in Europe including; Germany, Spain, Iceland, Finland, and Romania. But also, people from closer to home such as the North York Moors National Park, the Cairngorms National Park and Nature Scot!
Notably, I attended a ‘Walkshop’ – This was a workshop that was based around going for a walk in nature, run by the Healthy Parks Healthy People Programme. This programme utilises our natural spaces to improve people’s health by enabling them to connect and immerse themselves in nature.
During our walk, we had to notice the nature around us in the city. I noticed that there were plants such as mosses and grasses growing between paving stones. This made me think that nature can still grow even in places that we try to eradicate it from!
We then walked to a park in Leeuwarden. Here we did a nature connection task – Nature bingo! We had a bingo grid, and we had a list of descriptive nature words to put in it. For example, brown, fragrant, rough, spiky. We then had to find four objects that matched four of the description words and make a line like you would in bingo.
I think this is a great activity for groups as it makes you focus in detail on your surroundings. It also will engage a younger audience as it adds a level of competition! I found a brown stick, a spiky chestnut case, a rough bit of bark and a fragrant flower!
To end our walkshop we then did a mini forest bathing session. We had to first close our eyes and focus on the sounds and the feeling of the wind around us. Once we opened our eyes, we were told to focus on something. I focussed on an ash tree. It was a very healthy-looking ash tree.
We then had to walk up to what we had focussed on and get up close and personal with it! When you’re in a group of people doing this, you feel less silly! I loved the texture of the bark of the tree and that it had different moss and lichens growing on it.
This ‘walkshop’ was a great addition to my conference experience as I got to be outdoors and ‘reset’ for the rest of it. I felt focused and relaxed at the end of the session.
Another session that I had at the conference was my track and sign field trip. It consisted of a 14km walk through two of the Netherlands National Parks – NP Dwingelderveld and NP Drents-Friese Wold. The national parks in the Netherlands are smaller than in the UK and have more habitats within them.
In this walk, we covered 4 different habitats: woodland, lake, sand dunes and deforested woodland. The highlight of this experience was finding a wolf track. I hadn’t realised that there is a pack of wolves that lives in the Netherlands!
The rangers were discussing with us the management measures that they must implement to protect the livestock from the wolves without culling the wolves. Fencing around the livestock is being built. Dogs to protect livestock and diversionary feeding are also a possibility.
This field trip was also interesting as the rangers in the Netherlands national parks are the ones that do community engagement instead of having specific community engagement roles. It works well for them as the rangers have vast amounts of knowledge that they can share with the public.
Other elements of the conference were various inspiration sessions, keynote speakers and a ‘marketplace’ of stalls of different organisations that you could chat to about their work.
For example, a national park in Finland is trying to collaborate with the native people, in Austria, they are doing youth engagement with a story about dormice and in the Netherlands, they have introduced buffalo into one of their national parks.
It was a great opportunity to see how other protected landscapes work and the differences between land ownership and legislation.
As a young person, I felt very welcome at the conference and that my thoughts in a discussion were listened to. There was an emphasis at this year’s conference for young people to attend – There were 70 people under 30 at the conference this year!
There is a willingness from the older generation to learn from the younger and vice versa. It was also clear that everyone wants the same end goal – To protect our wild places and to engage people with the natural world in a responsible way.
I would love to be involved in another conference as it was a great experience and I can use what I learned in my traineeship and career going forward.