An update from Sarah Kessell, CEO of WTSWW.
Covid has had a devastating impact on so many of our members and supporters, especially those of you who have been ill or have lost loved ones. Our staff and I hope that you and your families are safe and well. Many of you have asked about how Covid has impacted the Trust, so I thought it was a good time to update you all.
We didn’t know it at the start of last year, but The Wildlife Trust quickly became dominated and almost derailed by Covid during 2020. In early March we implemented strict cleaning regimes and social distancing but soon after, stricter government advice led to a slump in visitors, so the visitor centres had to close. Just a few weeks later we entered full lockdown and our income was turned off overnight.
In April over half of our staff were furloughed leaving a ‘skeleton staff’ to cover all priority work across our patch. Priorities were safety checks of buildings, livestock and nature reserves, and continuation of the research and monitoring on our Islands, as well as protecting the breeding seabirds. We couldn’t have our usual work parties or resident volunteers, so much of our practical management and monitoring work had to stop. We began emergency fundraising and this is still the main focus of my work.
When furlough started we thought it would be for two or three months, but the longer the crisis went on, the harder it was. The skeleton staff team were covering several jobs and dealing with the regularly changing covid rules and restrictions. We worked non-stop, but still we couldn’t do everything we wanted and needed to do. The furloughed staff were not able to volunteer their help and the longer the furlough went on, the more frustrated, worried and impotent they felt. It was a terrible situation for everyone, but it was essential to save the Trust.
Although we have resumed trading and activities as far as possible since August, the subsequent lockdowns are continuing to have a severe impact on our income and activities over winter.
Overall, we lost around £700,000 of income during 2020. This was a desperate situation because we have very limited unrestricted financial reserves, so we were not able to cover this loss internally. We pulled out all the stops to fight for our survival, submitting applications to every emergency grant possible, talking to donors and members and raising awareness of our plight. I am happy to say we had a great deal of success. Skomer Live! Was put together extremely quickly by staff, volunteers and with the help of Lizzie Daly and Iolo Williams, and helped direct generous supporters to the emergency appeals on our website.
The media picked up on our story and Skomer Live attracted a wide audience, including British singer and songwriter David Gray, who dedicated a new song 'Running on the Waves' to Skomer. The show and media attention, helped to generate nearly £100,000 in donations towards our core costs, the costs of managing the Islands, and other appeals.
Although we were not eligible for the main emergency grants through the Welsh Government, we were relieved and delighted to receive rapid support from the Moondance Foundation and the Waterloo Foundation, and substantial support from the National Heritage Lottery Fund and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action.
The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts also moved very quickly to support the network of Wildlife Trusts across the UK. Alongside other, smaller grants, we raised a total of almost £450,000. We were also successful in a couple of other large grants that have helped fund our conservation team and their management of nature reserves until the end of March, from Natural Resources Wales and the Welsh Government.
In addition to the impact on our income, we have also lost staffing capacity. We have a tightly-knit staff team, so the unavoidable round of redundancies was particularly painful. There are also other staff vacancies which we have not been able to afford to fill, so in most cases, our staff are still covering more than one job.
It is not yet the end of the financial year, but I think we will have recovered around 90% of the £700,000 through grants, donations and internal savings, which means we have survived one of the most difficult years we have ever experienced.
My deepest thanks is due not only to those grant-funding organisations who moved quickly to respond to the crisis, but to our members and supporters who donated so generously to our appeals. I have been humbled by our staff, who have pulled together and worked very long hours to do whatever was needed to keep the Trust afloat as well as giving me moral support. Our Trustees, Local Groups and other key volunteers have been fantastic and we couldn’t have survived without them.
We have been deeply moved by the messages of support we have received and the guidance and moral support within the Wildlife Trust movement. It is no exaggeration to say that on the most difficult days, that is what kept us going.
The scary fact is that 2021 could be even worse if Covid restrictions aren’t lifted soon, because at the moment, those emergency grants that saved us last year may not be available again. We are more dependent than ever on our members and other supporters and may have to reign in and prioritise what we do very heavily until trading returns to normal.
If you are able to help us through 2021, please consider making a donation to our Covid appeal.
Although I’m sure that most of you, like us, are feeling exhausted and drained, I want to reassure you that we are not letting Covid dominate everything we do!
We need to produce a new strategy and work plan for the next 10 years, and we invite you to input to this process.
We know that in the context of the ecological and climate crises, our work has never been more important or urgent and it is frustrating that Covid interrupted the plans we had and the progress we were making. Mike Alexander, our new Chair, has written a consultation paper setting out the context we are working in, looking at some of the key challenges and inviting your views with a set of questions at the end. We would love to have your ideas on how you think we can bring wildlife back in our area, how you want to be involved and how we can support you.
The consultation can be found here. We’d like your input by the end of April, so that we can have a new plan in place by late summer this year.
Sarah Kessell, CEO