Our founder – Kenneth Watkins OBE (1909-1996)
We are the UK's largest woodland conservation charity, but were established from humble beginnings in 1972.
Our founder was retired farmer and agricultural machinery producer Kenneth Watkins. He was alarmed at the decline of our woodland, spinneys and copses cleared in the drive to increase production. In the early 70s, together with his wife, friends and co-founders, Oliver Rossetti, well-known Devon naturalist Henry Hurrell MBE and Stanley Edgcumbe, they began work to address the plundering that our woods had suffered during the last century.
Within five years, Kenneth and his small team had acquired more than 22 woods in six different counties in south west England. Soon after, the Trust announced its ambitious aim to protect woodland throughout the UK and appointed its first full-time employee.
By 1979, the Trust had moved from just being a Devon-based charity, to a nation-wide one, and has planted more than 41 million trees so far.
Ken was awarded the OBE in 1989 for his services to conservation and in 1995 the British Naturalists’ Association honoured him with the Sir Peter Scott Memorial Award.
Ken cut a dashing figure in his heyday. A lover of fast cars, he took part in motor racing events during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, including Formula 500 with a Cooper-Norton, and the Daily Mail international race meeting at Silverstone with an Allard Chrysler J2X. His everyday, personal and favourite car was a yellow Ferrari Dino 246GT, nick-named the Yellow Peril.
Ken’s practical skills extended to mechanical engineering which he put to good use when he and his brother Leon set up a farm machinery business in the 1930s, which went on to great success. Their love of the natural world led to another joint venture – the establishment of a nature reserve near their farms in Harford in Devon, where Ken built an artificial otter holt.
He was also a keen and accomplished photographer and film-maker and made several natural history films – including one on harvest mice which won a BBC award for short nature films.
Ken and Mary even had a pet badger named Meles which they allowed to wander around both floors of Butterbrook, their beloved home. This former rectory was named after the brook running through its 50 acres of land and remained the only address for the Woodland Trust until as late as 1981 when we opened our Grantham head office.
On his death in 1996, The Guardian’s obituary described Ken as: ‘A benevolent despot, a tough and single-minded decision taker but at the same time full of kindness and compassion for the friend out of luck.’ He clearly included trees and woodland among those friends.
Ken’s ashes are scattered in King’s Wood – his favourite sitting place – close to Butterbrook.