Surrey residents share the story of their nature re-discovery
- Credit: Archant
We meet four Surrey residents whose re-discovery of nature has been life-changing
Stuart Fleming, conservation officer
I've had a fairly unusual career path. I worked for Swinton Insurance for 16 years, as a broker and branch manager. Now my office is a group of amazing nature reserves across Surrey.
I was made redundant a couple of years ago and I thought hard about what to do next. I wasn't sure that going back to the same kind of job was the answer, so I started volunteering outside and did my first work party with Surrey Wildlife Trust. I loved it and began to spend more time on nature projects. One day I was at an adult education session at the Trust's reserve at Nower Wood and met some guys who were training at Merrist Wood College. They prompted me to enrol on a one-year part-time course in countryside management.
Thanks to more training and volunteering, my skills were improving when I saw a vacancy for a countryside assistant with the trust. I applied, got the job and started in March 2019. I now work three days a week and study at college the rest of the time. I'm responsible for maintaining nature reserves in good condition for visitors. This means making sure car parks are clean and tidy, checking information boards and signs, and keeping trails open. I also clear fallen trees and repair gates and fences. And I lead volunteer work parties on Westfield Common in Woking, which is a lovely site.
Being outside every day is really good for your mental wellbeing. I remember one day last winter, when I was on a work party in the freezing drizzle with leaky boots, and someone asked me, "So, would you rather be back in your old office?" The answer was no.
Instead of sales targets, staff management and loads of stress, I get freedom and beauty every day. In some ways I'm reviving a childhood passion, because I was always interested in birdwatching and wildlife programmes. But then university and a career took over and I thought that I would never get another chance.
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You might say that I've taken a risk. The money isn't great, but the other rewards make it so worthwhile. And my wife has been amazingly supportive, both emotionally and financially. In fact, it sometimes feels slightly strange to be doing this for a living. When I'm on a work party these days, I have to pinch myself - I'm getting paid to do this!
I've really come to understand how much the trust relies on volunteers to protect and improve habitats. They don't have to be out there, but the fulfilment they get is amazing. It's a combination of social interaction, exercise and a passion for nature. Nothing beats a good day's work for a good cause.
Find out more about volunteering at surreywildlifetrust.org/volunteer
Craig Freeman, digital marketer and nature blogger
My wife and I moved from south London to Surrey three years ago. We had two very young children and we wanted space to bring them up in. My daughter Edie was two-and-a-half and when she saw our new garden in Reigate the first thing she said was, "Daddy, run!". I knew then that we had made the right decision.
As soon as we arrived, I started looking for ways to get Edie and her little brother Otis involved in nature, taking them out for walks and just to play outside. Luckily, our arrival coincided with 30 Days Wild, which is a Wildlife Trusts initiative that encourages people to do at least one thing outdoors every day in June. I was already active on social media, so I decided to write about how I was incorporating nature into family life. My blog seemed to catch on and I was soon part of an online community sharing experiences and ideas. The kids loved it. We fed the birds, dug a pond, made art from leaves... you name it. The best part was that it didn't stop when June ended. We carried on spending lots of time outside, even in winter.
It's been really good for us all. We're less stressed - and we now have a puppy, which means we spend even more time outside trying to wear him out. Both the children are great at walking and Edie has Forest School lessons at school once a week.
Of course, it's all useful material for my blog, too. I've even taken up gardening, which is a kind of tribute to my granddad, who was an avid vegetable grower. Being in nature gives me such a sense of escape. I work in digital marketing, so it's a useful counterbalance to technology and the office environment. Some of my friends think I'm prematurely middle-aged, visiting nature reserves and pruning flowers, but I just love being outdoors - and so do my children.
Jon Hawkins, Photographer
Four things that happened decades apart have shaped my relationship with nature. The first was my childhood in Ash Green, which is a semi-rural kind of place. I spent my time playing in the woods, making dens, climbing trees and sitting by a pond on Normandy brickfields, hoping to catch a fish. That feeling of freedom never left me.
Then, on my 21st birthday, my Dad bought me a proper camera. I used to take it to family birthday parties and weddings, and when I started working for Royal Mail I still took the occasional photo, particularly when my children were young.
Many years later, around 2005, I went on a few outdoor expeditions with a friend. We saw some fantastic animals, so I started taking my camera. I learned fieldcraft and bought some camouflage gear so I could get closer. I was still fishing too, but that was just another excuse to watch wildlife. Above all, I learned to be patient. I realised that you see something interesting every time you go out, but you don't always get the shot you want.
Finally, I left the Post Office after 32 years, invested my redundancy money in equipment and took up photography full-time. These days I divide my days between corporate and wildlife work.
In the last 10 years I've seen a real decline in wildlife. There are more and more people out with dogs (including me) and we all make a noise. Tracks are wider and animals steer clear. I often get up at 4am so I'm out there while the animals are active. I suppose part of the attraction is that it takes me back to those childhood days when we sat in trees watching badgers and deer, imagining we were in the Famous Five. Today carrying a camera around gives me a great excuse for being in the woods, watching all that wonderful wildlife.
See John's wildlife and other photography at surreyhillsphotography.smugmug.com
Zygie Davies, wildlife gardener
When I was young the family lived in Cornwall, Devon and Wales, so I grew up with nature. I'm an only child and spent a lot of time outside on my own. Dad grew vegetables and we would regularly look after injured birds and animals.
Later, having lived without a garden for a while, finding the right house became a priority. I needed to renew that contact with nature, for the good of my health and wellbeing. Six years ago, I eventually found the right place on a half-acre plot in Lightwater, near Brentmoor Heath, I started gardening for wildlife and ended up entering the Surrey Wildlife Trust wildlife garden award three years running. It's such a brilliant idea to encourage gardeners not to be neat and tidy, but rather to do what they can for nature.
Following this, I became a member of the trust and now I'm a regular volunteer for the Trust. I've cleared ferns and silver birch on the heath, laid hedges and have just signed up to become a cow 'looker', which means keeping an eye on some of the Trust's conservation grazing herd of cattle. The great thing is that it's flexible around my work, which is just as well as I work in television news, so I can't be sure when I'm available.
I feel so strongly about conservation that I've run the Surrey Half Marathon to raise money for the trust. Our green space is gradually being eroded, which has terrible implications for our mental and physical health. What really concerns me is how we are losing the bridges between green spaces. I studied biology and it's clear to me that ecosystems are becoming too small to cope. Small territories lead to species inbreeding and eventually dying out.
To help prevent this, I'm always looking for ways to improve my patch. I've dug ponds, laid a native hedge and every year I take out more of the rhododendrons that used to dominate the beds. As a result, in 2018 I won the Surrey Wildlife Trusr award for the best large garden. I now see so much wildlife, including frogs, lizards, voles, mice and birds. I've changed my attitude to other animals too. I used to get rid of slugs and snails, but now I garden around them.
I've got a few little projects on the go, such as sowing wildflowers and sunflowers. I'm building an arch with honeysuckle climbers and another made of willow with sweet peas to provide summer shade for one of the ponds. I've created a bank for lizards to hide in. And by not picking up all the leaves and cutting paths in long grass rather than mowing it, I'm creating new habitat.
The garden still needs managing and it takes a lot of work, but I've found that you don't have to manicure it to make it look amazing. And when it's alive with bees and butterflies, it's truly fantastic!
For more on wildlife gardening visit: surreywildlifetrust.org/wildlife/surrey-wildlife-garden-award