This new year, the UK youth nature network A Focus on Nature are launching our second major campaign, #NowForNature, celebrating young people acting now for conservation. This was launched with the splendid AFON advent, in which blogs from different members each day in the festive run-up reflected on the heroes that inspired them to do what they are doing.
As a committee member I did not contribute myself, but as I head into an equally uncertain and exciting year for me personally, I felt the need to celebrate those I have known personally that have helped set me on my journey. In two blogs, I will be paying tribute to two different but very important people who have played that role.
If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise. Nestled in the heart of the New Forest lies a keeper’s cottage, which to me is a place of hope.
I first met the owner of this cottage, Martin Noble, at the open meeting of the Hampshire Mammal Group (of which he is chair) over four years ago. With a driving licence relatively fresh in my wallet, I was using this newfound freedom to get involved with the wider conservation community in my area, and I found Martin’s talk about the work of the New Forest Badger Group (which he also chairs!) fascinating. Here was a chance not only to get out into the Forest to observe and understand badgers in a wild setting, but to contribute data to the Forestry Commission at the same time; just the sort of thing I wanted to be getting involved with.
Since then, Martin has become a friend and mentor of the sort I wish I had far earlier on in life. Having moved to the Forest in the 80s to work for the Forestry Commission, Martin served the now-National Park as head keeper for over 20 years. In that time he oversaw a greater awareness towards wildlife conservation in the FC, which, when he started was staffed mainly by people whose primary interest was simply cutting down trees. The anecdotes I’ve heard from Martin, of encouraging leaving deadwood to restore natural watercourses, the realities of deer culling and more, all speak volumes about what it’s truly like to be a practical conservationist in an organisation only just beginning to get its head around the idea.
Stories like these have been told on numerous occasions at the cottage. Often, I will pop in for a cup of tea and a chat, intending to stay for a couple of hours or so, but, as if by magic, I will have looked at my phone and six hours has suddenly disappeared in the midst of our conversation. But by far the most magical aspect of the cottage is what lies beyond the patio doors.
Both Martin and his wife Julia are avid rehabilitators and breeders of British wildlife. At the bottom of their garden is a menagerie that is a veritable sweet shop for someone like me. Large areas of the lawn are sectioned off with foot-high glass or tin plates, each containing a herpetological heaven. Sand lizards bask on a recreated slice of heath; the animals bred from each year with the young contributing to official reintroduction programmes. The eyes of European pond turtles gaze forlornly at you, their gold-speckled dark heads breaking the surface of their duckweed-sprinkled pools, while their housemates, the edible frogs, leap into the water beside them in neat plops. What seems like an ordinary garden greenhouse is coated with ferns and heathers inside, and all around the plants and walls, European tree frogs squat contentedly. Wall lizards scuttle over logs and brambles, and beneath them Hermann’s tortoises shift themselves clumsily over the grass like tiny, drunk tanks.
Just behind these, shaded by the sweet chestnuts that reach their green fingers out from the New Forest itself, are a few wood-and-wire pens used for breeding another rare species for licensed release – hazel dormice. Holding one of these sleeping beauties in my palm is something I’ll never forget. And turning back up the garden path, a much larger pair of pens are home to another much larger mammal. Provided Martin has an open jar of jam to hand, you can get very close indeed to his two pine martens, Merlin and Poppy.
In the Springtime, you will more than likely find Julia actively caring for orphaned mammals. On my first visit, two fox cubs fixed me with curious stares from underneath the dining room table. The focus, however, is on badgers, and whether rolling on the kitchen floor or snuffling through the stable out-back, orphaned cubs are a regular feature, with much of the badger group’s funds going towards their upkeep.
And maintaining the wider New Forest itself is not forgotten – a herd of ponies is maintained as commoners have done for centuries, the animals shaping the ecology of the landscape as the extinct large mammals of old would have done. While they largely live their lives beyond the homestead, heading out with extra food in the leaner months with extra food is an essential winter duty.
Despite this Noah’s Ark in their home, the couple claim to have downsized on their animal care commitments. Among their memorable stories are the rehabilitated bats that would regain their flight around the living room while Martin & Julia watched television; or the aggressive wildcats with whom Martin had some rather close shaves. Some years ago, when Julia used to work at the local wildlife centre, wild boar piglets and wolf cubs were among some of the former houseguests!
All these creatures alone create an enchanting aura around Martin’s life. When I introduced AFON founders, Lucy McRobert and Rob Lambert, to the couple three years ago, the former promptly stated “If there’s any garden with fairies at the bottom if it, this is it”. Something hard to argue with.*
But it isn’t just the stories and the creatures that make Martin such an inspiring figure to me. Although officially retired, he and Julia still manage their own ecological consultancy, in addition to the running of both the mammal and badger groups. Martin’s unwavering enthusiasm and determination never to sit quietly when there is still so much to do, is testament to the fact that a child-like pleasure in nature will never leave you even when you may have seen the rougher aspects of it after working in conservation. The wonder Martin exuberates for nature reminds me why it’s worth sticking with wildlife for the rest of my life.
* Although dormice are probably better than fairies.