Celebrating the women who have helped shape conservation – our leaders of the future, past and present

By Emma Marsh, RSPB Director for England

I don’t come from a traditional conservation background. I grew up in a working-class family in the Midlands. My dad was a farm worker, but I didn’t see anyone else like me – female and working class – in the conservation sector and so it didn’t seem like a genuine career option, despite my love of spending time in nature and my desire to fight climate change.

We didn’t feel we could afford to join wildlife membership organisations and, as there were no nature reserves near us via public transport, we couldn’t volunteer and there weren’t spaces that felt like ours to be in.

Today, I am incredibly proud to work for an organisation which celebrates incredible women; we were established by our strong, pioneering female founders over 100 years ago; we are the largest partner of Birdlife International, the world’s largest conservation partnership, whose Chief Executive is Patricia Zurita.

Over half of our Executive Board members are women, including our Chief Executive, our President and three-quarters of our Country Directors, and it is the same for the Chairs of our Country Advisory Committees.

We have conservation leaders throughout the Society, in every team and place that we work, volunteers and employees, who are women and girls leading the fight against the nature and climate crises.

We are part of an exciting global network of women across government, charities, NGOs and business, working hard to find both systemic and practical solutions to the most pressing conservation problems the world faces.

And this is never more true than across the landscape of Sherwood Forest.

The first ever, and longest serving, President of the RSPB was Winifred, the Duchess of Portland (above, left), based at the family seat, Welbeck Abbey.

Beccy Speight, CEO of RSPB (above, right), lives in Nottinghamshire, and has worked in the nature conservation sector since 2000 promoting a systemic global approach to the challenges we face, and in 2020 was included in the BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Power list.

I’m proud to say I’ve been involved with Sherwood Forest NNR and visitor centre and Budby South Forest since January 2016 with RSPB, and now oversee all of our operations across England to protect and restore habitats, save species, fight the climate and nature crises

Our amazing senior site manager at Sherwood, Gemma Howarth (below, left), leads a team to protect, conserve and enhance the ecology of the forest, promoting this magical place to worldwide audience, enriching the experience of visitors, ensuring it sits at the heart of the local community.

Among her colleagues is Estate and Conservation Manager Izi Banton (below, right), who has been instrumental in Sherwood Forest becoming Nottinghamshire’s only National Nature Reserve and securing the future of its wonderful collection of ancient oaks, as well as heading the team running the hugely popular Robin Hood Festivals for more than 30 years, and helping more people to connect with nature.


I joined the RSPB at a time when they were making real strides to increase the number of women at a senior level and I’m incredibly proud that we continue our drive to make our organisation a diverse and inclusive place to be a part of.

What have I learnt during my career?

  1. Believe in yourself. You are better than you think you are and you really can do it.
  2. You don’t have to fit 100% of the job description before you can apply. Do you have what it takes and are you willing to learn so that you quickly can fit those needs? If the answer is yes, then apply.
  3. Be curious – ask if you don’t know and never be afraid of admitting you don’t have all the answers. To be a strong leader you need to know the right questions to ask and have an amazing team of experts around you.
  4. Challenge bias – you know you are good enough
  5. Go for it!

People will and should come to conservation from all backgrounds and routes, and each and every one adds huge value saving nature every day in a multitude of ways.

Never think it’s too late and never think you shouldn’t be there; it’s not, and you should.

And you will be our leaders of tomorrow. The future belongs to the next generation, so we need to invest in our young people so that they can pick up the mantle to continue this work, fighting the nature crisis, in the decades ahead.

International Women’s Weekend takes place at RSPB Sherwood Forest on Saturday 12th and Sunday 13th March, including a free exhibition about the women who have helped to shape the landscape of Sherwood Forest.

Emma Marsh will be at Sherwood Forest on Saturday 12th March for Q&A sessions, which are also free to attend.

For more information and to find out about other events taking place to celebrate International Women’s Day, click here