From an early age, Kenneth Watkins was interested in rural life.
Born in Bromley, Kent in 1909 December 6th, after leaving school Ken went to Exmoor to become an agricultural apprentice. By the 1930s, he was farming at Diptford, near Totnes, with his brother Leon. However, it was not long before they diversified into agricultural machinery, teaming up with another manufacturer to form Watkins & Roseveare, a forerunner of Western Machinery Ltd, which still operates successfully in the southwest.
The Second World War intervened, and Leon left to serve in the navy, while Ken, whose asthma prevented him from joining, became a MAFF farm adviser and continued to run the business. An urgent need for serviceable agricultural machinery for the war effort helped the firm grow quite successful. It assembled machines imported from America.
After the war, Leon returned and together they built the business up into one of the largest importers of agricultural machinery in the country, allowing them to retire to their own farms at Harford, near Ivybrige, by 1972.
As well as being a talented engineer, Ken had other passions. He loved to race fast cars, competing in Formula 500 in his earlier days and travelling around in a buttery-yellow Lamborghini, which he called, ‘my Italian friend’.
He was also a keen wildlife photographer and filmmaker, winning a BBC award for one of his short films on harvest mice. On his own land, he set up a nature reserve and in the 1960s became honorary secretary of the now Devon Wildlife Trust. There he formed the idea of setting up the Woodland Trust with three close friends. He was concerned that small broadleaved woods, spinneys and copses were disappearing, having been plundered for timber during the war, or planted with softwoods.
In 1972, at the age of 63, he set up the Woodland Trust, a charity operating initially in Devon. The first woods acquired were in the Avon Valley and soon the Trust owned over 40 hectares (100 acres) there. Ken built up the Trust’s membership with his wife Mary, from his kitchen table. Direct fundraising appeals and novel promotions like ‘plant a tree for 50p’, together with injections of funding from other agencies, helped him to increase the Trust’s holdings to over 22 woods, within six different counties, by 1977.
He travelled extensively, doing much of the physical work himself, helped by other retired friends who were not much younger than he was. He also used Economic Forestry Group contractors, which enabled him to put into action his plans to expand outside Devon. Their nationwide network meant they could scout for woods outside the area and assess their potential. The Trust announced its intention to operate UK-wide in 1978, just after it took on its first full-time employee, John James, as development director. The Trust’s headquarters also moved from Ken’s kitchen table to Grantham, near where John lived in Nottingham.
Ken continued to maintain an interest in the Trust, attending meetings in his 80s. In 1971 he was awarded an MBE and in 1989 an OBE for his services to conservation. He passed away peacefully in November 1996, but the charity he created continues to go from strength to strength.