Toos van Noordwijk is Director of Engagement and Science and combines a background in conservation research with a range of experiences in public engagement and management roles. She has a passion for the natural world in all its weird and wonderful forms and is committed to providing opportunities for people from all walks of life to explore, enjoy and benefit from nature too.
My first paid job as a teenager was being a mum to 120 baby birds (which each needed feeding every 20 minutes!) A logical next step was studying biology, which involved checking more than 1,000 bumblebees to see whether they were male or female (the females sting!), being in a small boat on the Wadden Sea to track shore crabs and counting tiny holes (called stomata) in 200-year-old leaves to reconstruct past climate change. I moved on to working for a conservation research trust where I tried to find out how we could help insects in chalk grasslands. These beautiful flower-rich places have become very rare and are now increasingly protected. However, in spite of our best efforts, many rare butterfly, grasshopper and beetle species continue to decline. In my research I tried to see the landscape through the eyes of these species to understand what challenges they face and how we can help them.
I have since applied this approach to other conservation challenges and have learned that similar principles apply to people. People rely on the natural world for many different functions and their decisions are underpinned by a range of (conflicting) motivations. To generate sustainable solutions for land management we need to engage with all stakeholders and see the world through their eyes to understand which solutions would work best across the board. Seeing the world through other people's eyes also helps to understand what barriers they encounter and what knowledge we need to create and spread.
I love being involved in innovative research and inspiring education, but most of all I enjoy learning from others, particularly from people who are often overlooked. Everyone holds valuable knowledge and bringing this together can unlock innovative solutions. One of my best experiences was bringing a school group out into a flower-rich meadow not far from their school. Most of the children had never visited this place, had never felt the high grass tickle their hands and had never run around chasing bugs, even though this was a publicly accessible nature reserve a stone's throw away from their homes. The best part was to sit a group of 30 noisy eight-year-olds down and ask them to close their eyes and listen to the sounds around them. They loved it! It was amazing how quiet they all were, to see them gradually becoming more relaxed and afterwards to hear about all the sounds of nature they had heard and enjoyed. On that day, these bouncy eight-year olds taught me as much about the calming effect of nature, the natural curiosity of children and the amazing array of sounds in meadows as I hope they learned from me.