Guernsey Press

A natural progression

As the first chief executive of the Nature Commission, Jessi Jennings has big plans for the future. Matt Fallaize found out how her life and career led her to this new role...

Jessi Jennings, the new chief executive of the Nature Commission. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 33211377)

IT STARTED with ‘Free Willy’.

One of Jessi Jennings’ few memories of her early life in the United States – where she lived until she was five – is the first time she watched the evocative family drama.

‘Immediately I became obsessed with orca whales and my passion for the marine environment grew from there,’ she says. ‘From that age, I knew I wanted to do things with a marine theme, and most of what I did at school and outside school was directed to that.’

The stars of ‘Free Willy’ were the orca whale Willy, of course, and Jesse, a 12-year-old who befriends him.

Amusingly – well, I thought it was amusing anyway – Jessi’s boyfriend, who was one reason she moved back to Guernsey a few weeks ago, is a local chap called Will.

I know Will well. I’ll deserve what I get for including that.

The other reason Jessi moved back to Guernsey, where she grew up, after several years working in New Zealand, was to pursue her passion for the natural world, as the first chief executive of the Nature Commission, an independent charity set up last year to help deliver the States’ Strategy for Nature, with grants from the Environment & Infrastructure Committee (£300,000 over three years), Community Foundation (£150,000 over three years) and Social Investment Fund (£100,000 over two years). It has two other staff: Angela Salmon, head of operations and education, who is part-time, and Charlotte Burgoine, an ecologist, who is full-time.

In my head I can hear one or more voices of my editors asking why, in these tougher times for public finances, government should be spending taxpayers’ money on another commission.

‘Nature provides what we call ecosystem services.

‘They include things like pollination, water purification, making sure we’ve got clean air to breathe, and our food growing because of good soil quality.

‘All of these things we rely on to survive. Nature also allows for economic growth. If we’re not protecting nature, we’re not protecting those services that nature provides to us, which support the economy, as well as our health and wellbeing.

‘If we spend time outside in clean air and in a healthy natural environment, our health and wellbeing improve.

‘If we don’t protect nature, the long-term downside is that we’re going to lose all these things that we rely on, which is why you can’t separate the natural environment from the economy. They rely on each other. Without the natural environment, our economy would collapse.

‘Some people may say they don’t really engage much with nature, but are you eating food, do you have a garden, do you like to go to the beach? These are all engagements with nature. And if those parts of nature aren’t productive and healthy, we can’t use them for our own human purposes. There’s an argument to say that everybody has an interest, or at least self-interest, in nature, whether they recognise it or not.’

Globally, nature is believed to be declining faster than at any time in human history. Wildlife has declined 60% in the past 40 years alone. Extinction rates are 100 to 1,000 times higher than average over the past several million years. The World Economic Forum ranks biodiversity loss as the third greatest global risk. Locally, periodic surveys show a not dissimilar picture, with species and habitats in decline due to man-made pressures, including striking declines in unimproved and semi-improved grasslands. One page of the States’ Strategy for Nature contains pictures of some of the 50 plants, 18 breeding birds, 11 dragonflies and six butterflies lost in Guernsey in recent decades. The strategy’s aim is to make Guernsey’s natural environment healthy and resilient to threats and understood and valued for its essential contribution to the economic, social and environmental life of our island.

Some environmental issues, such as climate change, may be harder to localise. ‘Why must I keep the central heating off while China builds two huge power plants a week?’ has no straightforward answer. Nature is easier to localise: ‘our land, everything that lives in it or on it, our freshwater reservoirs, and our seas’, as Jessi puts it. Storms in south-east Asia, drought in sub-Saharan Africa and rising sea levels submerging islands in the Pacific are distant events. Whereas daily we can see or touch the wildlife in our gardens, the purity of our beaches and the cleanliness of our air.

This is perhaps why there is broader consensus about protecting and enhancing nature and why – my words, not Jessi’s – the Nature Commission may well be pushing at an open door. Businesses and philanthropists, who will be needed to help the commission become less reliant on public funding, will see the results of their support clearly in their local environment.

Jessi Jennings. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 33211382)

Public support and participation will be key to the commission’s success. This summer’s citizen science projects are a great way to get involved. They include the big seaweed search, butterfly monitoring, an eggcase hunt which aids understanding about sharks, skates and rays, a sea search which collects information about the habitats and species around the island’s coast, and plant alert which assists gardeners to protect nature.

‘The purpose of those is to engage the public, get people collecting data and improve our understanding of the natural environment. We need volunteers because we are heavily reliant on volunteers. We’ll be organising other events for evenings and weekends in the summer. We’re happy to organise events for schools and companies during the week. We want to encourage people to get in touch and tell us what they’re interested in doing and we’ll try to be supportive.’

In a fascinating accent – half-Guernsey, but for now still half-Antipodean – Jessi reels off a to-do list so long that she may have been adding to it ever since she got the job in October. She spent months preparing to return home, in the meantime securing permanent residency status in New Zealand, which she says she hasn’t missed – ‘yet, but I think I will’.

‘Moving back didn’t feel like that much of a big decision when it came to it. There were several factors. I had entered the private sector after years as a civil servant and I was finding that quite hard. My partner is here and we had been doing long distance for just over a year. My family are here. And then this job came up and I thought I might never get another opportunity like this and couldn’t miss it.’

Jessi’s new role is the culmination of a long journey to find the right niche to fulfil her passion in the right location. A study in getting a foot in the door, as it were, and making the most of every opportunity. After graduating with a degree in marine biology and oceanography at Bangor University in Wales 15 years ago, she went into customer services at Guernsey Water. She had hopes of doing a post-graduate degree in Canada or Alaska, but the cost put it out of reach. Instead, she got a job at the States’ environmental health department, which included inspections of restaurants, health and safety and other work a long way from marine biology and nature, but she ended up leading on environmental protection. She was there five years and during that time also took a master’s degree in environmental health.

‘I enjoyed it, but I just knew there wasn’t enough environmental protection work here to do that full time. I had always wanted to go to New Zealand and knew that overseas experience would be valuable. I found it difficult to break into work over there because of their visa requirements. But I managed to get a temporary role with the Ministry of the Environment on projects about contaminated land.

‘I did that for a year before securing a permanent position at the Ministry in state of the environment reporting, which was definitely more in the realm of where I wanted to be.’

When Jessi left Guernsey, she thought it might be good – ‘or at least for a very, very long time’ – because of the absence of the type of work she wanted to do. She set about moving from a working visa to a residency visa in New Zealand.

‘For that, I needed to earn a higher salary, which meant a sideways step career-wise, into a role in waste and resource recovery. That was a risk, but it paid off because I got my residency visa, which meant more freedom in the jobs I could do in the future.

‘At that point, I went into the private sector with a company called Tonkin and Taylor. They’re the largest engineering and environmental consultancy in Australia and New Zealand. I was a senior marine ecologist for them in the Wellington region.

‘I loved Wellington. The city is quite small. You get to know people quickly, in the same way you do here. It has a coastal town community vibe. I rented an apartment by the sea with fantastic views. From my apartment, I could see orcas and dolphins. One of the great things was that I could finish work on a Friday, drive a couple of hours and be on a ski field the same afternoon, and the variety of landscape in New Zealand is stunning. The marine environment out there is incredible. The downside is that it’s a long way from everywhere and everyone else.’

Jessi hopes that two areas in particular of her work in New Zealand will help the Nature Commission as it establishes itself in Guernsey. ‘The first is that I was in state of the environment reporting, which will be valuable because at the commission we will be carrying out state of nature reports. The second is that in my most recent job in New Zealand I was involved in biodiversity net gain with large development projects, which is something Guernsey is just starting to enter into. I can bring back the pitfalls and challenges New Zealand has experienced and help the States of Guernsey as they work through the metrics to adopt and how all this can be tailored to local species and habitats.’

She says she can’t believe how quickly and easily she has ‘slotted back into life in Guernsey – as if New Zealand is just a dream now’.

This may have been helped by the enthusiasm and openness she has found when talking to people about the commission and her new role.

‘In between the time between me leaving for New Zealand and coming back, there has been a shift in Guernsey, and perception about the importance of nature has improved.

‘There is much more sympathy now for nature-based solutions and for changing lifestyle and behaviour to allow protection of the environment.’

Jessi was particularly attracted by the variety of her role.

‘When I applied, they said they wanted someone to act at board level and CEO level and present to the States, being an ambassador for the commission, but they also wanted to know I could go out and do nature surveys or take school kids out on the beach and go rock pooling.

‘It’s a very cool mix.

‘We’ve got our team now. We’ve got some funding. We’ve got a strategic direction. Now we’re at the doing stage, so it’s an exciting time to have joined the commission.

‘I still can’t quite believe this is a thing Guernsey is doing and that I’ve been given the privilege of leading this work.’