Thursday 8 April 2021

Interview with Julia Hanmer, BSBI's new CEO

Julia enjoying the spring
blossom at RBG Kew

This is an important week for BSBI! In late January Jane Houldsworth, our Head of Operations since 2013, left us to take up a high-profile post leading a brand new charitable foundation. Recruitment started for a Chief Executive Officer to lead us forward, building on Jane’s excellent work but also forging new paths and seizing new opportunities. The recruitment process was long and rigorous, with almost 100 applications for trustees to sift through, but once we had found our preferred candidate we were delighted to find out that she could start work on 6th April.

So this week we welcomed Julia Hanmer as BSBI’s first ever CEO and she was as keen to be interviewed and tell us something about herself as I was keen to introduce her to all of you:

LM: So Julia, welcome to BSBI! Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself and what you were doing before you joined us?

JH: Thanks Louise - I’m delighted to be joining BSBI! I’ve spent 25 years working for nature conservation NGOs including 14 years leading the Bat Conservation Trust; before that I was at CPRE, The Countryside Charity and the Mammal Society. Along the way I’ve learnt that I really enjoy leading and developing organisations, speaking up for wildlife and building collaborations to make a difference for conservation.

Julia in her previous role, supporting bats, 
bat groups and c6000 BCT members

Recently I’ve been on a career break - I wanted to take some time to reconnect with my volunteering roots in conservation. So I’ve been getting involved in the work of ecoACTIVE (a London based environmental education charity of which I’m a trustee) to engage diverse local communities in nature conservation and education for sustainable development. I also trained up as a forest school leader.

LM: Gosh you’re ticking some serious nature conservation boxes there! So take us back to the beginning - did your interest in wildlife start at university or when you were a child?

JH: When I was a child visiting my grandparents in Dorset, they took me out to explore the local chalk downlands which sparked my interest in wild plants. Although I went on to study a degree in zoology, I still had a keen interest in plants. So when I was studying for my MSc in conservation I chose to do my dissertation on the changes in wet meadows in Jersey, to improve my botanical skills. That was way back in 1993, but my recent forest school training has helped me brush up on some of my botanical skills again.

Julia and Carol Williams, BCT's Conservation
Director, outside the Houses of Parliament
Image: Evie Winter
LM: Thanks, that answers the ‘are you a botanist’ question! You’ll obviously be able to transfer many of the skills you’ve built up and your years of experience leading NGOs to your new role at BSBI. I imagine there will be quite a few similarities between the Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) and BSBI, but maybe there will also be some differences?

JH: Yes many similarities - both are founded on a network of very active and passionate volunteers who achieve a huge amount on the ground. Both have a clear emphasis on science and gathering the evidence needed to understand how our species are doing, as well as inspiring people to learn more. BSBI has many more species to look after! (there are 18 species of bats in the UK) and has been around a lot longer (BCT was formed in the early 1990s). Like BSBI, BCT runs training courses for volunteers and professionals (including for ecologists, arboriculturalists and the construction industry) and leads on citizen science programmes - but BSBI has a very impressive role as a pioneer here!

Julia enjoying time outdoors in the Lake District
LM: Yes, our volunteer recording activity in the 1950s which resulted in 1962’s Atlas of the British Flora was arguably one of the first citizen science projects, and of course we’ve carried on that tradition of outreach and engagement with the New Year Plant HuntGarden Wildflower Hunt and - the big one! - Atlas 2020. Your recent work as a Forest School leader suggests that engaging the next generation of naturalists is important to you – would you like to say a bit more about this?

JH: I love seeing the excitement that close encounters with wildlife can inspire and feel really fortunate that I had the opportunity to discover nature as a child. So I’ve found it very satisfying introducing children to the wildlife of their local parks in very urban parts of London as a forest school leader. Many have never done any digging, let alone held a worm or named a dandelion before. It’s so encouraging to see their journey of discovery, with that initial excitement then turning into a determination to look after wildlife.

LM: Yes, I think that’s exactly how many of us who are BSBI members and supporters first got “hooked” by this lifelong passion for the natural world! Ok so that’s the background and now you are here with your hands on the BSBI steering wheel - so what’s your first priority for the next few weeks?

Julia and husband Trevor enjoying
the gorse and heather in Howth,
Republic of Ireland
JH: I’m keen to listen and learn from everyone at BSBI in my first few weeks in the role, so I gain a really good understanding of the organisation.

LM: What about longer term? What goals would you like to have achieved by the end of the summer?

JH: The new BSBI strategy is a great starting point and drawing up plans to implement the strategy will be my overall focus in the medium term. I hope my skills and experience can help BSBI with broadening engagement, strengthening training to address key botanical skills gaps and ensuring BSBI’s amazing data and information about wild plants is widely known and used to influence decision making, so wild plants can thrive and are valued.

LM: Hear hear! Is this a good moment to ask about your other passions? What do you do when you are not at your desk or engaging children at a Forest School? Do feel free to tell me if I’m just being too nosey here but it isn’t every day that we welcome a new CEO – in fact it has never happened before!

JH: I enjoy spending time with my family (which is fortunate in these lockdown times!) - my husband Trevor and our two daughters, Lore and Elly (who are 20 and 17). As a family we enjoy hill walking although over the past year, like everyone, we have been very much more focused on local walks. I’m involved in my local church and I recently helped them to install solar panels on the roof. Other than that I love seeing friends, gardening, travel and spending time outdoors wherever possible.

LM: Yes that’s been really important over the past year, hasn’t it, finding ways to keep enjoying the natural world while staying safe under lockdown. Well, thank you for telling us so much about yourself and your plans. I guess you will be writing something about your first few months at the helm, and your plans for the months ahead, for our next issue of BSBI News (our members-only newsletter so if any non-members want to hear more, they will jolly well have to join the Society!) Maybe you would also like to offer us a short talk at November’s AGM and Exhibition Meeting, so you can tell everyone how you are getting on in the role?

JH: Yes, I’d be delighted to. I am really looking forward to meeting more of the amazing people who make up BSBI.

LM: Ah, we have lots of amazing BSBI people for you to meet! And until then, can our members and supporters contact you?

JH: Yes, I’d be happy to hear from people - the best way to get in touch is by email

LM: Great, thanks for talking to us Julia - please keep us posted on how you’re getting on and once again, welcome to the BSBI!

JH: Thank you Louise! Exciting times ahead.

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