Letter writing

How Hampshire's nature champion inspires change

Ray Cobbett has spent much of his retirement campaigning with Friends of the Earth's local group in Havant. He turned 80 this year yet shows no sign of slowing down.
Celeste Hicks
By Celeste Hicks    |      Published:  14 Jan 2019    |      3 minute read

When Ray Cobbett retired from his job at IBM in the 1990s, he was looking for a project to inject his considerable energy into.

"It was only when I got out of business that I started to reflect on what was happening to the world around us," he says. "I'd always had a strong sense of what is right and fair, but I'd never had the time to think about how our way of life was impacting the planet."

Ray looked up his Friends of the Earth local group in Havant, which had been running since the 1970s. Membership had dwindled, but Ray loves a challenge.

Ray Cobbett filling birdfeeders in his garden in Emsworth
Ray Cobbett filling birdfeeders in his garden in Emsworth
Credit: Celeste Hicks/Friends of the Earth

Under Ray's stewardship, the Havant local group is now one of the most active in our network. It has around 30 members and has been involved in campaigning on most of Friends of the Earth's core issues.

The Havant group is full of committed letter-writers and objectors. You might think that writing a letter is not the most effective way to campaign, but it can send a clear signal to politicians about local concerns.

What people appreciate is that we've been going 20 years and we've become an established authorityRay Cobbett

Declining biodiversity in south-east England

I meet Ray to talk about his work for Friends of the Earth on a crisp autumn morning. It's warm enough to sit outside in his wildlife-friendly garden just metres from the sea in Emsworth. Long-tailed tits, blue tits and bullfinches gather on his array of bird-feeders.

"The biggest concern for people in the Havant area is the loss of biodiversity," says Ray sipping his coffee. "They know in their hearts that the number of garden birds has declined. Our job is about helping people to join the dots to understand why all of this is happening."

Recently the group has organised a local survey of wildlife populations in Hampshire, with over 650 responses. 450 residents reported seeing fewer hedgehogs in their gardens.

This coincided with a local ornithologist's warning that that there are only 14 breeding pairs of nightingales left in the county, compared to over 250 in 1988.

Credit: iStock

"It is telling that this is not just something that experts are seeing – you can see this in your own back garden with your own eyes," says Ray. The local group is calling on Havant Borough Council to take wildlife into account in its new Local Plan which will be published in the new year.

Havant Friends of the Earth has campaigned against a ban on windfarms on council land and advised the council on biodiversity plans. The group has helped halt oil exploration at the Markwells Wood site in the South Downs National Park.

Ray believes one of the best moments was organising Havant Goes Greener in 2008. This was a community event which showcased environmental solutions such as reducing plastic waste, growing vegetables and eating greener. It offered practical advice such as installing loft insulation.

Ray (left) at Havant Goes Greener event
Ray (left) at Havant Goes Greener event
Credit: Ray Cobbett

I loved the national campaign, the Big Ask in 2005. It appealed to the rebel in me, and that's what made me a committed member.Ray Cobbett

Local knowledge

As a former Liberal Democrat councillor, Ray has a good grasp of local planning and decision-making processes. He also writes a regular column in his local paper, The Portsmouth News. He's tackled every subject from air pollution to the local council's recycling record.

"What we do best is collaborating with other groups that aren't necessarily environmentally-focused," says Ray.

Members of Friends of the Earth Havant
Members of Friends of the Earth Havant
Credit: Ray Cobbett

Dogged determination

Ray has been recognised for his Lifetime Achievement by the annual Friends of the Earth Earthmovers awards. Earthmovers is organised with the support of players of People's Postcode Lottery who have to date donated £4,924,309 towards our work.

Congratulating him on the award, Friends of the Earth South-East campaigner Brenda Pollack says: "The Havant group has remained successful largely due to Ray's determination, enthusiasm and genuine love of his community. With his wide professional background and council experience, he knows how to push for change."

Friends of the Earth has the biggest network of grassroots environmental activism groups doing fantastic work all over the UK. If you want to join or start a group near you, get in touch.