21 years on… why are we here?

Thorne Moors in South Yorkshire, still an impressive expanse of wild habitat and few people.

CEO Brian Eversham looks back at 21 years since joining the staff at the Wildlife Trust.

This September marks my 21st anniversary of joining the staff of the Wildlife Trust, having volunteered for the Trust for a decade before that. So, it seems a good time to reflect on what we’ve achieved, what remains to be done, and why it’s still the best job I can imagine.

I’ve been fascinated, maybe obsessed, with wildlife for as long as I can remember.  I caught my first Great Diving Beetle when I was about 7, learnt my first scientific name  - Dytiscus marginalis ­ - and I’ve loved pond-dipping ever since. It’s not just for kids – an understanding of water beetles, water bugs and pondsnails can help us manage our wetland nature reserves better.

Great Diving Beetle

Fifty years on, I still find great diving beetles impressive. (Image: diving-beetle larva attacking freshwater shrimp)

By my 12th birthday I was a fanatical local birdwatcher, and my ‘patch’ was the extensive lowland peatlands of Thorne and Hatfield Moors in south Yorkshire. In the days before instant social media, ‘twitching’ usually meant missing a rare bird by a week or more, so ‘patch work’ was much more rewarding. For a teenager, 7000 acres of wilderness full of wildlife was an amazing playground, and learning to survey whinchats, nightingales, nightjars and long-eared owls was an ideal apprenticeship for a would-be ecologist.

Thorne Moors

Thorne Moors in South Yorkshire, still an impressive expanse of wild habitat and few people.

A feature of the Moors in Winter is the hours of walking between birding highlights such as Hen Harriers and Great Grey Shrikes. So there was plenty of time to look for other wildlife... and peat in winter is a great place to explore mosses and lichens. I was soon the local specialist in lichens and was re-finding species not recorded in the area for over a century. Decades later, I still spend my winters looking at lichens.

Lichens - Brian Eversham

An assemblage of cladonia lichens on a heath in Hampshire. 

As the peat moors were increasingly savaged by the peat cutting industry, turning wilderness into growbags, in the late 1970s I was encouraged by the local bird club to turn my focus to botany, and I’m still rather proud of the detailed vegetation survey I carried out while studying for my ‘A’ levels.  Re-finding rare plants such as cranberry and bog-rosemary, not seen on Hatfield Moors for a century, was exciting, and the first lowland site in Britain for the scarce upland lichen, Cladonia sulphurina.

Cladonia sulphurina among other lichens - Brian Eversham

Cladonia sulphurina, this one from Northumberland, has seldom been seen in lowland Britain. Sadly, the part of Thorne and Hatfield Moors where it was found in the 1970s has long since been destroyed for peat digging.

As a zoology student at Durham, I spent my summers on the Moors looking mainly at insects, adding lots of species to the county list, and eventually finding a real first -  the Mire Pill-beetle, known from a bronze age trackway and a single dead specimen, then suddenly I found dozens of the beast, and began unravelling its complex lifestyle.

Mire Pill-beetle

A mire pill-beetle among the mosses which it feeds on.

By the time the national Peat Campaign, led by the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and Friends of the Earth, took off in the late 1980s, my local bogs were probably the best documented peatlands in the country. It was a great day when, in 2002, the government paid to end peat cutting on the Moors, and they became the Humberhead Peatlands National Nature Reserve.

After university I spent 15 years in ecological research at Monks Wood, then the largest environmental research station in the country.  I was responsible for zoology within the national Biological Records Centre, where I broadened my interest in invertebrates, and it convinced me of the lasting importance of amateur naturalists in documenting British wildlife. The research I began there included some of the first studies of climate change and British wildlife  -  back in the mid 1980s well before it became a widespread concern.

Metrioptera roeselii f. diluta, long-winged Roesel's Bush-cricket - Brian Eversham

In the 1980s, the Biological Records Centre documented the northern expansion of Roesel’s Bush-cricket and Long-winged Conehead, among the first direct impacts of climate change on the British fauna and flora to be recognised.

When I arrived at the Trust in September 1997, we were still getting over the recent mergers, and we had only 12,000 members (we are now over 36,000) and a turn-over of £600K (now averaging about £5 million).  Our impact on local wildlife was limited, too.

So, it was a bold move to take up the idea proposed by my predecessor, Adrian Colston for landscape scale conservation. I wrote our first funding bid for what is now the Great Fen, at the end of 1997, and by 2000 we had nine landscape-scale projects. Three years later, they were called Living Landscapes, and the same idea had been taken up by all 47 Wildlife Trusts.

Since then, it’s been steady progress with Living Landscapes, acquiring and expanding our nature reserve network, providing advice on habitat management for landowners, extending our education work into wider community outreach, and boosting our programme of wildlife training workshops (probably the best of its kind in the country).

Roesel's Bush-cricket

Participants at a training workshop on invertebrates.

I first saw ‘Cambourne’ in winter 1997, before the first house was built. The beautiful Oaks Wood was at the time known as ‘Rat Wood’ and full of rotting potatoes dumped by the local farmer.  The whole 220 acres of woods, meadows and lakes at Cambourne are now far better for wildlife (with over 5000 houses) than when it was winter wheat and oilseed rape.  The Trust has built a reputation for striking good deals for wildlife with developers:  we’ve since created other superb nature reserves at developers’ expense, at Lilbourne Meadows, Trumpington and Rushden Lakes, and I’m sure there are more to come.

Oaks Wood at Cambourne

Oaks Wood at Cambourne

Twenty-one years on, I’m still enjoying wildlife in my spare time, learning more about lichens, molluscs, beetles, aphids and more. And still running training workshops and guided walks. Since about 2000, photography of the smaller wildlife has played a growing part of my enjoyment of our nature reserves, and you can see about 30,000 of my photos at https://www.flickr.com/photos/cladoniophile/   I find using my own photos, each with its own story, makes it much easier to give talks and lead workshops, than photos borrowed from the internet.

No organisation does as much for local wildlife as the Trust, and as the pressures from development increase, there can be no relaxing. I’m proud of the way we defeated plans for housing next to Flitwick Moor, and how we helped persuade Peterborough City Council to remove a potentially devastating new village next to Castor Hanglands national nature reserve from a recent draft local plan.

But after 21 years with the Trust, 36 years in conservation and ecology, and close on 50 years watching wildlife, I still get an adrenalin rush at the first nightingale of the springtime, or a new beetle, snail, lichen or flower.