We interviewed Helen Neave who with her husband Christopher has taken their love of nature creating reserves filled with a rich diversity of life.
Q: When did you start Make It Wild?
We set up Make it Wild as a business in late 2017. However – we had bought our first piece of land, as a family project, to ‘give back to nature’ in 2010. We planted 20,000 trees there in 2011, and it became Sylvan Nature Reserve. The impact of that young woodland was amazing – insects, birds and mammals arrived, and we could really see that we had supported biodiversity. That’s what inspired us to buy more land and run the project as a business.
Prior to this, Christopher had a successful career in business and I was a consultant surgeon and senior manager in the NHS.
Q: Have you always had a passion for nature?
As a child I learnt to identify butterflies, birds and wildflowers from my father. I have always found it refreshing and beneficial to be outside in nature – whether in the woods, up a hill or by the sea. In more recent years, my passion has turned more to trying to do what I can to save the planet from the damage being caused to it by humankind.
Q: What was the driving force behind Make It Wild and how did you set about planning and learning the relevant knowledge so to start?
My husband, Christopher, and I were becoming increasingly worried about the damage humans were causing to the planet. So much space that we felt rightfully belonged to Nature was being concreted over to make houses, railways, runways, and roads. So we decided to do whatever we could to help. That’s why we bought our first piece of land, to give it back to nature. The impact we had on biodiversity there, through creating a 26 acre woodland, was wonderful. That’s what inspired us to keep going!
Neither of us has a background in ecology, so we needed to ask for a lot of advice to start with. We read a lot of books and talked to a lot of people! It was amazing that through word of mouth, people with all kinds of expertise sought us out, and offered to help. For example, we have had surveys by groups of amateur archaeologists, botanists, and experts in ancient trees, bats and moths. We have learned a huge amount through our experiences over the past few years.
Q: What have you learned the most from your efforts?
The most dramatic point of learning for me is about the power of nature, and our impotence in the face of her might! We can plant all the trees we like – but a storm might blow them over in a flash. We can dig a pond which might fill at first, but then empty and never hold water again.
Another thing that I have realised more gradually – but with great clarity – is that we humans are part of nature, not separate from it. As a society we seem to have forgotten that fact, and I believe our increasing disconnection from nature is behind a lot of the problems now facing us.
Q: What is your greatest achievement to-date?
We are very proud that within just a few years of our ownership of our Bank Woods Nature reserve, it was designated a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) This confirmed that our nature-focussed management had helped nature to flourish. Removing sheep and introducing conservation grazing has had the effect we hoped for!
It was also a wonderful achievement to plant our 50,000th tree earlier in 2021.
Q: How has your reserve evolved? How long did it take to see your efforts taking shape and have you had any surprising results?
We have been very fortunate to be able to add to our land holding, as suitable opportunities arose. This means we now have a number of smaller new woodlands and rewilding areas, in addition to Bank Woods and Sylvan, which are our two main nature reserves.
It took about 5 years for us to be convinced about the ‘explosion of biodiversity’ which resulted from the 20,000 trees we planted at Sylvan. But sometimes the timescale can be shorter – we put up 30 bird boxes at Bank Woods, and in the next season had over 80% occupancy!
Surprises include finding a pipistrelle bat roosting in a bird box, and arriving at our barn one morning to find a young tawny owl inside!
Q: If people visit, what nature might they expect to see?
At Sylvan, which has a public footpath around its perimeter, and is therefore open to visitors on foot at all times, there are many butterflies, damselflies and dragonflies. There are also many different birds including finches, warblers, birds of prey and also kingfishers on the river. You might also see hares and roe deer.
At Bank Woods we have roe deer, hare, fox, squirrels and many birds including pied flycatcher, nuthatch, many tits and warblers, greater spotted and green woodpecker, tawny and barn owls, several other raptors, lapwing and curlew.
Q: You provide holiday accommodation, will you do more nature getaways?
We have a luxury eco-friendly holiday cottage, called Heather Lea, adjacent to our land at Bank Woods and Dowgill Grange. Guests enjoy exclusive access to the nature reserves and may join us for a volunteering session or for a guided Natural Mindfulness Walk. (unfortunately the pandemic and associated restrictions have limited our ability to develop this much more)
Q: What is the plan for your reserves going forward?
Christopher made a pledge three years ago to plant 100,000 trees in a decade, as our contribution the Northern Forest. We are currently on track, to achieve this target, but it means we have to do our best to plant 10,000 each year. We will soon be extending our programme of nature-connected activities, like foraging, tracking, nature photography, and personal development coaching in nature.
Q: What advice would you give to other people who have an interest in nature?
I would say – nature really needs our help, and whatever you can do, however small, is important. There are some easy things to do that will have an impact – do a beach clean, try to use less single use plastic, encourage nature into your garden – maybe make a tiny pond, plant a tree or don’t mow your lawn.
You can find out more about Make It Wild here. There is information about the holiday cottage here, or if you are interested in volunteering, take a look here. Make It Wild also provide natural mindfulness walks and you can get more information about this activity by clicking on the link here.
Are you doing your bit for nature? We would love to hear from you. We will regularly run interviews with conservationists, bird watchers, reserve owners, and all those who can inspire others by the way they give back to nature. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org