Honour for the Norfolk woman who fights to save our seas

Jennifer Lonsdale at her home in Great Ryburgh. Picture: Matthew Usher

Jennifer Lonsdale at her home in Great Ryburgh. Picture: Matthew Usher - Credit: Matthew Usher

When Jennifer Lonsdale joined the fledgling movement to save the whales in the 1970s, she never expected to win Royal approval.

A Greenpeace inflatable disrupts a Norwegian whaler. Picture: Greenpeace

A Greenpeace inflatable disrupts a Norwegian whaler. Picture: Greenpeace - Credit: PA

But the environmentalist from Great Ryburgh, near Fakenham, has been made an OBE in recognition of four decades of campaigning to protect marine life and the environment.

Mrs Lonsdale was in at the beginning as the newly-formed environmental group Greenpeace turned the spotlight on the sea's darkest secret. Founded by Canadian activists, the group exposed the world's whaling fleets and the vested interests which kept them afloat to rape the oceans, sparking international outcry.

'We were part of a new breed of people, who said you just can't do that,' she said. 'Governments went into shock. Civil society was saying you can't carry on like this.'

It's hard to see Mrs Lonsdale, who serves as a school governor, as a firebrand and – in her words – a troublemaker, as we sip coffee in the study overlooking the riot of wildflowers in her back garden.

Greenpeace protesters put anti pollution masks on the lion statues by City Hall in Norwich.

Greenpeace protesters put anti pollution masks on the lion statues by City Hall in Norwich. - Credit: Archant

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But from volunteering for Greenpeace as it took on the whalers of Russia, Norway and Japan, she helped set up the powerful international campaign group that grew from the bravery of the idealists in rubber boats, who sped between the whalers' harpoons and the threatened marine giants.

By 1980, she was working with fellow activists Allan Thornton and Dave Currey on freelance projects.

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The trio obtained an old North Sea trawler and set sail to document the Norwegian minke whale hunt, obtaining the first-ever footage of the hunting. A year later, she travelled to the Faroe Islands to investigate the Faroese pilot whale hunt.

By 1984, the trio had formed the EIA – the Environmental Investigation Agency. Its brief was to go undercover, exposing threats to the world's endangered forests, tigers, elephants, rhinoceros, oceans and cetaceans.

Jennifer Lonsdale with her OBE

Jennifer Lonsdale with her OBE - Credit: Archant

The group's work was a game-changer, as governments around the world were forced to bow down to public outrage and clean their acts up.

Commercial interests also found themselves squirming in the spotlight – such as the household name airlines the EI exposed as being involved in transporting millions of songbirds for the pet trade, four fifths of which died en route to the pet shops.

'We changed the agenda,' said Mrs Lonsdale. 'It was a new way of looking at the world, we stood up and made our voices heard.

'I'm enormously proud of what EIA has achieved over 31 years, from small beginnings where three people wanted to make a difference by working together to where it is today'

Still a director, Mrs Lonsdale, now 64, works as its oceans campaigner, seeking protection for whales, dolphins and porpoises and highlighting threats to the world's seas such as climate change, pollution, entanglement in fishing gear and marine litter.

Away from the world stage and the wranglings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), she has been a school governor in Norfolk for 20 years and is currently chair of the governing body of Fakenham Academy. She is also a member of the Ryburgh Village Amenity Group and on the management committee of the Ryburgh Village Community Shop.

So how did she and husband Clive – a wildlife camerman who has filmed in 60 countries – first find their way from the North Atlantic to north Norfolk?

'We were living in London, we had two young children and we came up to Norfolk for a weekend,' she said. 'We thought what a lovely place. Great Ryburgh had a really brilliant school, two pubs, two shops. We bought into a really lovely community, a really village.'

Ryburgh may have changed a little since the Lonsdales upped sticks, in 1994. But the couple – who have three grown-up children, Rosemary, Ross and Oliver – still love their adopted county.

To this day, Mrs Lonsdale can't be sure how her name ended up in the frame for the New Year's Honours List.

On Friday, she and Clive travelled to London, where Prince Charles presented her with her OBE at Buckingham Palace. 'He was asking me about my work,' she said. 'I explained what I did and he seemed really interested.'

Her citation states she is being made an OBE for services to the environment, particularly the protection of whales and dolphins.

'I was a trouble-maker in many ways,' she says, as the birds trill outside the study window and a stray chicken clucks past.

'I think it was the fact people were saying things couldn't go on the way they were.'

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