National Trust head ranger Julian Gurney’s is totally committed to conservation
- Credit: Archant
National Trust head ranger Julian Gurney’s commitment to conservation on Exmoor is absolute.
After spending his day working to protect the Trust’s 4,200 acres of woodland, pasture, open moor and deep Devon coombes, he heads home to an equally challenging project. Home for the Gurneys is remote even by Exmoor standards – a former limeburner’s cottage on the flanks of Foreland Point, overlooking the Bristol Channel and two miles from the nearest road.
The water supply comes from a nearby farm – Julian is considering a micro-hydro generation scheme using the power of a nearby stream - and electricity is courtesy of a propane-driven generator. At night, when the generator shuts down, hurricane lamps provide an emergency back-up.
“The property belongs to the National Trust and I have it on a long-term repairing lease,” Julian says.
“We feel very lucky to be able to live in the cottage and for me it is a dream home. And yes, I suppose making sure that it is inhabited, well-maintained and cherished does fit pretty well with the day job and the aims of the National Trust.”
Julian Gurney heads a team which consists of full-time paid rangers, full-time volunteers and part-time volunteers, responsible for an area stretching from Combe Martin to County Gate, where the Devon section of Exmoor meets Somerset.
The full-time volunteers are graduates gaining work experience while looking for permanent job opportunities in the field and the Heddon Valley-based team has an excellent record as a successful stepping stone to a career in the countryside conservation sector. Julian Gurney understands the system well, as he also made the step from volunteer to full-time National Trust employee. His family moved from Berkshire to North Devon in the 1970s and after school he got a place on a job creation scheme, working in the same Heddon Valley where he is now based.
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“It was only a six-month contract but I really enjoyed the life and the work and I felt I had found what I wanted to do in life. Although I went away and did other things I was drawn back to Exmoor.
“I worked as a volunteer at Watersmeet under the then warden, Winston Singleton, who had spent his life working on the moorland rivers. I was later offered a seasonal warden’s post and in 1995 became a full-time warden.”
Julian’s commitment to Exmoor was strengthened when he met his wife, Lynne (nee Ford) who was born at Vention Cottage in the Heddon Valley. Her grandfather worked on the valley estate owned by the Hunters Inn Company, which included both the well-known licensed house and much surrounding property.
When Winston Singleton retired the Trust merged the Watersmeet and Heddon Valley operations and eventually Julian was appointed head warden for the whole of the Exmoor holdings.
The remit of the rangers covers both practical tasks, ensuring that the woodland and heathland owned by the Trust are well maintained, and an equally important role of engaging with the thousands of visitors attracted by the spectacular scenery and the chance to get close to nature on the miles of footpaths.
“There is a strong safety angle to our work,” Julian explains. “Most of our footpaths run through woodland – sessile oaks, interspersed with ash, beautiful whitebeams and birch.
“All of the trees need careful health checks, paths must be kept clear, and fences and stiles kept in good repair. The steep valleys are stunning but they also feature rocky outcrops and other potentially dangerous points and in addition to making sure visitors are welcome, we are also concerned with keeping them safe.
“Our policy is that in managing access to the countryside, we aim to maximise visitors’ enjoyment without interfering too much with that enjoyment. We want to look after them while at the same time allowing them as much freedom to wander as possible.”
The National Trust owns around two thirds of the Exmoor coastline between Combe Martin and County Gate, but because of its towering cliffs only three beaches – at Wild Pear Beach, Woody Bay and Heddons Mouth are currently accessible. A bad winter damaged the access path at the formerly popular Sillery Sands, east of Lynmouth, which at low tide had a firm sandy beach.
Unlike many other beautiful parts of Britain, the parts of Exmoor for which Julian and his team are responsible are not seen as being at risk from the type of human-inspired development that has wrecked some coastal and inland areas.
“The fact that the National Trust owns so much land, and that so much of the moor is not just in a National Park but is also of Special Scientific Interest means we are conserving an already highly protected landscape.
“A much bigger threat than over-development is posed by nature,and in particular by invasive species such as rhododendrons and Japanese and Himalayan knotweed.”
Julian Gurney also believes that the National Trust and Exmoor National Park Authority must be alive to the potential threat posed by developments situated away from Trust land and outside the park.
“We need to look not just from the outside into the area but also outwards, to external factors that might have an adverse effect on the beauty of our countryside. That includes anything that might be constructed off the Exmoor coastline.”