Jo Smith - CEO of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust
PUBLISHED: 00:00 23 June 2016
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Pat Ashworth meets Jo Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust
STAFF at Derbyshire Wildlife Trust (DWT) don’t need to stray far from the office if they want to access one of its 43 reserves. Gang Mine is right on the doorstep in Middleton, where the organisation relocated last year from its base at East Mill in Belper, and this hummocky, tussocky piece of grassland is as good as any to demonstrate to visitors what the work is all about.
And the CEO, Jo Smith, couldn’t be a better ambassador, living a stone’s throw from it herself and enjoying being able to walk to work for the first time in her life. We pick our way down a rough track bordering industrial land, treading over old railway sleepers that are about to have new life as the bedrock of a miniature railway, and enter the reserve. It’s not the best of spring days, with rain and chill in the air and a hint of mist on the distant ring of low hills, but the grass is green and springy underfoot.
There’s a paradox here. This is the site of a former lead mine, and the lead makes it difficult for the grass to grow. ‘That’s actually better for the wildflowers because they don’t have to compete with the grass,’ Jo explains. ‘The less fertile the land, the better: less grass and less being taken over, so more diversity of species. And the high lead content means some species grow here that are pretty rare across the whole of Britain.’
So there will be an abundance of wildflowers here. The daffodils and snowdrops have been; the bluebells and celandines have just arrived, and swathes of the small purple mountain pansy will soon be visible. ‘It will just burst with colour,’ Jo says with satisfaction, adding, ‘Most people think of grassland as green, but of course every time we see bright green, we think “Aaagh, we don’t want that; we want lots of colour!”’
Many of the reserves are on brownfield sites, some of them derelict and therefore potentially good for wildlife. The Trust restores sites, taking what Jo describes as ‘maybe something fairly boring like poor agricultural land or a brownfield site, and digging ponds, building woodlands, creating wetlands and meadows – a real mix. The more we do that sort of thing, the more we are realising what’s best and what has the biggest impact in terms of wildlife. We tend now to try and make our existing sites bigger and more robust rather than having lots of little sites all over, which isn’t quite so good for wildlife.’
The Trust’s Living Landscapes concept is about connecting existing reserves with surrounding green spaces, ‘so that wildlife can move and adapt to challenges around things like flooding and development and climate change,’ she says. Ask her what she considers the Trust’s flagship site in Derbyshire and she says with her broad and lovely smile, ‘That’s a bit like choosing your favourite child… It depends on the parameters you choose.
‘We have big, exciting reserves – one we’re particularly proud of is Woodside, a working farm in the south-east of the county – we have cattle there and run beef boxes off the back of it... And we have gorgeous grasslands like the Wye Valley reserves – places like Chee Dale are amazing for insects and wildflowers. And wetland reserves like Hilton and Willington are good for a visit.’
Jo has been with the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust since May 2014. She hails from Hebden Bridge, studied biological sciences and ecology at Durham and and went on to a PhD and ‘a life in academia’, lecturing and doing post-doctoral work before undertaking a school science project in America and returning to England to teach field studies in Norfolk. Working for the Field Studies Council was the start of her involvement with the education of younger children – ‘and I realised that was what really grabbed me and got me excited, being out there and doing fun stuff,’ she says with enthusiasm.
She’s alight with passion for the job. This is the fourth Wildlife Trust she has worked for, having previously been with Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, Durham and Yorkshire, where she was director for seven years. The remit of the Trusts, the protection of wildlife and wild places, is huge and the challenges enormous – 97 per cent of flower-rich grassland has been lost since the 1930s; intensive farming has had a massive impact on field margins; the bee population, a vital pollinator, is declining, and gardens (which cover over a million acres in the UK) are increasingly being paved over. Then there are nationally controversial issues too, such as the killing of birds of prey, the culling of badgers, increased flooding and the effects of climate change.
‘People think that nature looks after itself. They say to us, “Why do you need money to look after a woodland?”’ Jo says. ‘One of our biggest challenges is to help people understand that without us, these reserves would not look like they do now – they would just be scrub, full of nettles and brambles. That would have some value to wildlife but nothing like the value they have at the moment. That’s a hard message to get across.’
And when she says ‘us’, she doesn’t just mean the 47 staff who work for the Trust. The mini-warehouse at the Middleton premises, stacked high with crates of kit and implements to be taken out on operations, testifies to the scale and variety of the work, aided by the 500 volunteers without whom hardly any of the work could happen. A training scheme gives young people a foot on the ladder in terms of career, and there is always great satisfaction when this leads to a permanent job. Like Ollie, who started as a trainee two years ago and now has a permanent job with the conservation team.
‘I love it,’ Jo says with genuine enthusiasm. ‘You have to when you work for a charity: it’s hard and the benefits aren’t huge. We ask people who come for an interview what attracts them to the work and sometimes they’ll say, “I’m in a job where I’ve been working long hours and I fancy relaxing in the countryside a bit”… well, that’s not what it’s like here. We put in a lot of hours and a lot of extra time but because we care and we want to make a difference. It’s more a lifestyle than a job.’
Hundreds of events take place each year, many centred on children. The Trust works with 6,000 schoolchildren a year, with waiting lists for the Nature Tots programme in particular. Children can become Bee Detectives this summer, learning to spot the Buff-tailed from the Red-tailed or White-tailed bumblebee; the Common Carder from the Tawny Mining or Hairy-footed Flower Bee. Forest schools – ‘making campfires, doing all the things that we used to do as kids’ – are proving enormously popular with schools. ‘We can give them support to show that you can do that safely and it can be fun,’ Jo says. As part of the DerwentWISE project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, children can experience an overnight stay in the wilderness. ‘Some say, “Oh, I can’t stand the mud” or “No! I can’t pick that up, it’s dirty”. It’s alarming how much they are removed from nature and wildlife and yet how naturally enthusiastic they are about it once they get the chance.’
Each reserve provides a vital refuge for animals and plants that are disappearing from the countryside: everything from bluebells to barn owls, bitterns to butterflies. Visitors can see mountain hares and woodland birds at Brockholes Wood, up near Glossop; dragonflies, grass snakes and water voles at Cromford canal, a former working waterway; great crested newts and black poplar trees at Hilton Gravel Pits; an abundance of wild flowers at Deep Dale and Topley Pike. Drakelow is another star reserve, a haven for birdwatchers in the Trent Valley. Rose End Meadows, near Matlock, demonstrate what Derbyshire’s limestone farmland looked like 100 years ago, as land that has never been treated with artificial fertiliser or herbicides.
There is no charge for entry to any of the sites, all of them as open and accessible as possible. A large slice of funding comes from the 14,000 members of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust; the rest from grants, donations and legacies, money-generating activities and contracts. A five-year plan has the goal of increasing membership to 20,000 by the year 2020. ‘There are a lot of pressures externally about what we should be doing and what we should be responsible for,’ Jo reflects.
‘I guess as chief executive, I’ve been focusing on what really matters and what makes the biggest difference. But you do get torn a bit and where financial support is concerned, in the current climate the demands get greater. A lot of the councils don’t do this work any more and there’s a big gap opening up into which it is very hard not to jump and start overstretching ourselves.’
She acknowledges that the target of 6,000 more members is ambitious, but observes that the new total would still be only two per cent of the county’s population. ‘Derbyshire is a county where people do seem to have a natural love of the outdoors and the countryside, so we like to think they will support us,’ she says. ‘It’s about getting the word out about what we do. When we ask people what the Wildlife Trusts do, they think we’re something like the RSPCA and take in injured animals – so a lot of people come to the office and say, “I’ve got an injured bird – can you help?” And of course we would, but that’s not our sole reason for being.’
A big part of the Trust’s strategy over the next three years is to open its first visitor centre. ‘We don’t have a real shop window that helps people find out who we are and what we do. We want to help people engage with the nature reserves, improve our interpretation about what they might see if they were visiting – where to go and which are best to visit at different times of the year,’ Jo suggests. They’re working on an increased presence on social media too, aware that this is where a large proportion of younger people in particular like to get their information.
So it’s a busy time ahead for Jo, her staff and her large team of volunteers. But she’s undaunted and looking forward to it. ‘Juggling plates is exciting. We have a lot of ambition and an amazing team,’ she concludes. ‘You know what passion is like – it can get frustrating because you have so much you want to do and don’t necessarily have the time to do it all. But it’s good. It’s really good.’