David North has been passionate about wildlife since he was a boy. His role as head of people and wildlife at Norfolk Wildlife Trust combined managing the Trust’s education and engagement, and conservation teams. The main factors that wildlife is in trouble are habitat loss, climate change, pollution, non-native invasive species and over exploitation of nature. He keeps optimistic that a better future is possible for wildlife and for people and that we will make it happen.
I was brought up in a lovely town called Malvern in Worcestershire. Then I went to secondary school at Royal Worcester Grammar. I’ve been interested in wildlife as far back as I can remember. My father was a very keen golfer and when I was around eight or nine, I used to pull his trolley around, but my interest on the golf course was trying to pick out the skylarks singing overhead as little black dots in the sky. Of course in those days children had so much more freedom, so I can remember being given my first bike when I passed my 11+ and then I used to disappear at breakfast and my parents would never know. I’d probably turn up at tea time for some food and my radius had expanded to about 15 miles away.
Even then I was a very keen bird watcher. My first bird book was The Observer’s Book of British Birds, which had these tiny little pictures of the birds which were like mythical creatures. Gradually I improved my skills and was fortunate to meet some other important adults and of course my parents who really supported my interest in wildlife which was brilliant.
Neither of my parents had an interest in wildlife but they did both like the countryside. My grandmother lived at a place called the Orchards near Upton-on-Severn and I used to go there as a child virtually every Sunday and feel quite bored. So I used to explore the hedges around and find the birds’ nests, I’m glad to say I never collected birds’ eggs, but I was very good at finding nests and enjoyed the amazing sky-blue eggs of the dunnock, getting to know the birds there and exploring further afield.
I got interested in badger watching and my parents would run me out to a place near Eastnor and drop me off. I’d stay out feeling slightly scared in these strange places hoping to see a badger and be picked up after dark. So my parents were pretty tolerant, and I had a childhood of damming streams and sledging down the hills roaming around.
I went through interests in wild flowers. I used to collect wild flowers and press them, which might sound a strange activity to today’s children. I joined the Worcester Naturalists Club which I attended as a young child. They had meetings in Malvern, and I met a wonderful lady called Margaret Palmer Smith who was probably even then in her 60s and 70s, of course she seemed very ancient to me but was a very good botanist and helped me a lot.
And I got interested in bird ringing when I went to secondary school and had to train Harry Green who actually became quite an important naturalist and chair of Worcester Naturalist Club and Worcester Wildlife Trust. I learnt to become a bird ringer and I was fortunate enough to go on expeditions abroad, so my skills of finding nests were highly valued.
When I left school, I desperately wanted to get a job in nature conservation. To the horror of my parents I applied to do the first ever human ecology degree at Coleraine in Northern Island. My parents weren’t very keen on that, so I ended up going to Durham University to study geography BSc.
That was a fortunate choice. David Bellamy who wasn’t so well known then was mere professor. I used to gatecrash his lecturers because I was interested, I wasn’t studying botany, but I would sit at the back and got to know David Bellamy quite well. Geography is a great degree as it doesn’t qualify you for anything in particular but everything in general. I’ve always been interested in that interface between people and environment and the conservation issues.
When I left university, I applied for a few jobs working in conservation and I’d done quite a lot of voluntary work, but I couldn’t find anything proper in conservation. So I applied through the British Council in a scheme very like VSO and taught in secondary schools in Sudan in Africa for two years.
I’m not sure I taught anyone too much, but I grew up. It’s a huge life-changing experience ‑ a really wonderful experience in a country which has a tragic history. I can remember one time during school holidays I bought a donkey and used my donkey for carrying water up the second highest peak in Sudan. I also saw my first lions walking on my own through the African Savannah of Sudan, so I had a very exciting time and I learnt a lot.
I couldn’t find a job after I came back from Sudan, so I did a master’s degree in ecology at UCNW at Bangor. I did my research on great black-backed gulls on Puffin Island off the North Sea coast and it was only after that did I get my first proper job in conservation.
Head of People and Wildlife
My current role as head of people and wildlife at Norfolk Wildlife Trust, which I’ve been doing for 15 years, is an interesting role because it combines managing our education and engagement team and our conservation team. I think it requires passion and enthusiasm for nature and protecting Norfolk’s wildlife, which I guess all jobs do here but also an understanding of both the education side and my former experience as a TEFL, TESL and geography secondary level teacher have taught me so much that’s useful on the education side. On the conservation side my MSc in ecology and volunteer experience of working for a number of organisations and are certainly a plus.
The glory of my role is I don’t have a routine. I guess it’s true in lots of jobs as you get promoted a little bit you start managing a lot of other people and a lot of my work is sitting behind a computer, answering emails, writing projects and applications. All these boring things like management plans, business plans and strategies which other people I manage deliver brilliantly. So I do find the excuse. It’s often on Saturdays or Sundays or in the evenings when I get out to visit events and things which we’re delivering but a lot of my role is now office based.
My role has changed a great deal over the last 15 years. I was appointed as education manager, so my role was managing a much smaller group of people. Basically my job was delivering our schools events during school term and taking up to five thousand children a year to visit sites like Cley Marshes, Hickling and Ranworth Broad and Holme Dunes and trying to develop that love, passion, knowledge and understanding of nature in children, to set them up for adulthood. Also during school holidays we do all sorts of events, from attending big external events that we do each year, like the Norfolk Show, to our small pond dipping and dyke dipping events and taking people rock pooling at West Runton.
So much of the work on the people and wildlife side is about inspiring individuals and communities to take action for Norfolk’s wildlife. To me what inspires people about nature is firstly taking people to wonderful places and showing them fantastic things. Actually a daisy or a dandelion, if you look at it through a hand lens or magnifying glass, is truly amazing so you don’t have to travel to be absolutely knocked out by the sheer wonder of awe and beauty of nature.
Equally the other thing I’ve learnt really inspires people is passionate enthusiastic knowledgeable face to face contact with some of our brilliant people and wildlife team who go out running events, working not just with children but with the county. We’re all inspired by meeting people who love what they do and are really enthusiastic about it and I think it’s contagious so we need lots of people to spread that enthusiasm around.
I’m very proud and privileged to have been involved with two projects connected to Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes site. The first was the creation of our wonderful visitors centre back in around 2005/6. It has this wonderful window which looks across the marshes to the sea. It’s a real flagship site with over 100,000 visitors a year. Before we built the visitors centre there were around 30,000 visitors and almost immediately it grew very rapidly so a real success story. It combines a small shop, a café and interpretation all in one building.
We realised we weren’t achieving everything we wanted in education, events and places for schools to come so back in 2012/ 2013 we had a project to build the Simon Aspinall Wildlife Education Centre and to buy some land on the coast which had come up for sale very excitingly to join Cley Marshes with our Salthouse Marshes reserve. Both projects were very successful, so we now have a wonderful education centre in Cley and we run amazing events down there.
I am very proud of those but I’m also very proud of our smaller projects particularly a number of Heritage Lottery funded projects. I must say a huge thank you to the Heritage Lottery Fund, they’ve supported the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and some of our people and wildlife team projects of many, many years and we couldn’t have done things without their financial support but our community projects which we’ve run through an amazing project officer Gemma Walker have really reached just about the whole of Norfolk.
Our current project is on common lands but we’ve run projects in Great Yarmouth and Thetford and Kings Lynn in urban areas and the thing which unifies those projects is they’re not on reserves but getting into the wider community and the wider countryside inspiring people and their local places and helping local communities, individuals and local people love those places, visit them and look after them better.
We’ve set up a number of individual volunteer groups who are managing commons, village greens and small sites right in the heart of the community and sometimes in urban areas that I think is truly wonderful and a very sustainable approach to conservation. There’s too much that needs doing and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, or the RSPB alone can’t save the planet. It actually depends on us all taking small actions within our communities, so I am actually proud of those community projects too.
We will certainly carry on buying nature reserves because we need more protected sites. We need them to be bigger and perhaps adjacent to our existing sites because it makes them more resilient to things like climate change and easier to manage. We need them to be even better, so we need to manage them in all the best ways, and we need to make them joined up. On my side of the work, we currently reach five or six thousand school children in Norfolk each year, but we need to reach every child in Norfolk. It’s hugely important that we continue to grow our membership. I’m not an expert but social media but getting our message out through those communication tools are undoubtably very important.
The Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Norfolk Wildlife Trust was the very first wildlife trust ever formed in the UK, formed with the purchase of Cley Marshes as Norfolk Naturalists Trust back in 1926 and we’re very proud there’s now 46 wildlife trusts covering the whole of the UK and more than 2,000 nature reserves managed by the wildlife trusts. Actually the wildlife trusts manage more nature reserves than there are McDonalds in the UK, so that’s a pretty impressive figure.
Norfolk Wildlife Trust employs over a hundred full time equivalent posts, probably around 140 or so people. More than 50% of the staff are in the reserves team which you expect as we have more than 60 nature reserves right across the county, so we need lots of people to look after those sites.
Here at Bewick House in Norwich, our headquarters, we have perhaps 25-30 people and that embraces a number of different teams. Obviously we’ve got the admin support and finance managers and all those very important roles. We’ve got a very large reserves team with two heads of nature reserves. We have a development team who look after our fundraising, PR, communications and membership activities. We’ve got 36,000 members or slightly more now, which makes us one of the larger wildlife trusts.
Changes in wildlife in Norfolk and globally
I think everyone realises that nature globally is in trouble and it’s largely in trouble because of the actions of people. I’ve always had that interest in how people relate to nature and to me most nature conservation problems ultimately are not solved by sorting wildlife out but by changing human behaviour.
The main factors that wildlife is in trouble can be applied globally, in Europe, in the UK or at Norfolk county level. Those factors are habitat loss, climate change, pollution, non-native invasive species and over exploitation of nature. In terms of habitat loss, we have lost 98% of all the original wild flower meadows that had been here before the Second World War.
Agriculture has changed so the meadows and those silage plots of Italian ryegrass, they may look green but they’re pretty deserts for wildlife. We’ve lost a lot of our heathland and a lot of our common land through enclosures, so the habitat loss has caused huge damage to wildlife in Norfolk.
Climate change is having its impact along the coast. As we’re seeing more storm surges and rising sea levels, more saline intrusions into the Norfolk broads, over exploitation of North Sea fisheries, such as the history of the exploitation of the herring. The Time and Tide museum in Yarmouth tells that story very well. But we are still over exploiting fisheries in the North Sea. Cod recently has been endangered again because of over exploitation.
Invasive non-native species
Invasive non-native species is a real issue in the Broads and water voles have been particularly affected. They introduced North American mink which is a top predator and really decimated water vole populations, but now there are mink control programmes. Another more historic example would be the grey squirrel, which brought in squirrel pox so we lost our red entirely from Norfolk in the early 1970s. Another example would be the American signal crayfish which introduced crayfish plague to a very rare native species, the white clawed crayfish.
However it’s hard to say everything about these invasive species is negative: many species which conservation relies on today, like rabbits which are good heathland browsers and are very important to the ecology of reserves in the Brecks. When they were first introduced, whether by the Romans as is now thought or the Normans, they’d have been an invasive species. But today they’re valued as almost conservation allies. It’s very easy to throw our hands up in horror and think everything about non-native species introduced is bad.
Non-native species do adapt. If you take some examples of natural colonists with climate change, we’re seeing breeding spoonbills back in Norfolk with sites on the north Norfolk coast. We get them feeding on the Hickling Broad and Potter Heigham marshes reserve so people will see them now. The little egret are everywhere now not just along the coast and the Broads but inland now. When I was a teenage bird watcher I had to travel to the Camargue in the south of France to see my first little egret. Mediterranean gulls have sites on the North Norfolk coast and I think Titchwell has over a hundred breeding pairs now. These were birds which were not found at all, so wildlife is responding to climate change and given half a chance wildlife is very adaptable and very resilient.
Roadside verges are wonderful because they connect different habitats together and actually they’re quite complex. I think there’s around 15,000 kilometres of road in Norfolk, so in theory that’s about 30,000 kilometres of roadside verge, and there’s nearly half a million miles of road in the whole of the UK so if they were all nature reserves that would be a huge area. You’ve often got a hedge, so that’s like a mini woodland connecting woodlands together. You’ve often got a grass strip and with the loss of our meadows and wild flowers, that’s fantastic for pollinators. You’ve sometimes got ditches which are like little wetlands with wetland plants and frogs and toads. So, they combine a lot in a small area and if we learn to look after them properly they can help rebuild this connectivity across the countryside.
The worst thing you could do for wildflowers on road verges is never ever cut them. That’s a bit of a myth that cutting is bad. If you don’t cut it will turn to rank nettles and eventually to scrub and you’d lose much of the wild flower interest which attracts the pollinators. It’s really about cutting at the right time of year. Wild flowers need a period to grow, they need a period to flower, they need a period to set seed and that’s often six to eight weeks before the seeds are viable after the flowers have died off. Then you cut, so it’s often fine to cut if it needs cutting in January or February or late winter before the flowers have started growing. It really depends on what’s there, but I would say August or September is the best time to cut. It’s also ideal to rake the cuttings off to keep the nutrient levels down.
That’s a tough ask and there’s a lot of road verges for Norfolk County Council and highways to manage but with the right management they can become fantastic little nature reserves. If people want to connect with nature then village roads, where people walk their dogs along the road, that’s where there are so many wild flowers, bumblebees and grasshoppers and you can connect with nature just walking down a rural Norfolk lane, if it’s well managed.
Disused railway lines
Narborough Railway Line is a Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve and its very special because when they dug the soil out to make the embankment that the railway line goes on they dug down into the chalk. Chalk is very nutrient poor and very rich in wild flowers and there’s not a lot of chalk exposures. The whole of Norfolk just about (apart from the Fens) is underlain by chalk but often covered over with glacial sands and gravels.
So where chalk is exposed then you often get a very rich flora and chalk-loving plants which are often quite rare. Orchids particularly like chalk so Narborough Railway is a joy. You get rare butterflies too. It’s a wonderful butterfly site.
But the wider point is our disused railway lines like Marriott’s Way, which is well used, that help that connectivity in the countryside. With the right sort of management many of these sites are what we call county wildlife sites which are the most important sites for wildlife in Norfolk outside of what we call the protected site network. These are the nature reserves and the sites of special scientific interest. These non-protected sites are the ones that are so important for the communities and individuals to make sure that they are looked after and not damaged.
Special Scientific Areas
There’s a huge network of sites with special scientific interest, some are really massive. Most of the North Norfolk coast is one and much of that also has European designations, as do many of the Broads, of SPA and SAC (special protection areas and special areas of conservation) under the European Union legislation and habitats directive.
Working with farmers
We work in conjunction with farmers to improve the long-term outlook of nature. The wildlife trusts have a project nationally called ‘living landscapes’. Through our living landscapes officer Matt, who is in our people and wildlife team, we provide a lot of advice to farmers.
Norfolk is blessed with some fantastic nature reserves in the Norfolk Broads and elsewhere including some of the fabulous Norfolk Wildlife Trust ones from the largest broad, Hickling Broad, to Barton Broad, Martham Broad. But if we’re not careful, broads become almost ghettos for wildlife, like islands surrounded by either intensive farmland or developed land, towns or roads. Wildlife needs to be able to move through the countryside but particularly to respond to climate change.
During the last Ice Age, as the climate cooled species were able to move south and then as the climate warmed twelve thousand years ago habitats re-established themselves so species could move back north. They can only do that through a connected countryside and the problem is if you get little island nature reserves, the rare species which require that specialist habitat wean out if conditions change or there’s a bad winter or disease comes. And there is no chance for that habitat to be recolonised.
The first thing we need to do is advise farmers to create more of those special habitats, the semi natural habitats. We are keen to work with farmers through some of the environment scheme’s farm payments to help create habitats. We need to find a balance for farmers to still make their money while also creating an atmosphere benevolent to the wildlife.
Of course, we need food production and you need that done efficiently but for many, many years farmers have benefited from public money whether through the European Union Common Agricultural Policy or through subsidies, the so-called area payments which most farmers receive.
So the environment secretary Michael Gove has today been talking about public money for public goods and we would see there is a real role for farmers to benefit from public funding to support looking out for wildlife and the beauty of the landscape. That’s something farmers have always done, the guardians of the countryside in many ways but from all sorts of pressures. We have lost wildlife and actually 80% or so of Norfolk is farmland, mainly intensive arable wheat, barley, sugar beet and rape. Unless we create field margins for pollinators and look after our ponds which often scrubbed over then dry out and restore some of those habitats we need balance.
Certainly our project is working with farmers and it can be a win-win situation that the farmers can benefit from conservation work as part of their overall farm business. Most small farmers have diversified, so they’re not just producing food. They might be doing bed and breakfast in the farm cottage, they might be producing their own products, and conservation can be part of that mix.
Tourism and wildlife
We also need a balance between tourism and wildlife. Why do people want to come to the Norfolk Broads or the north Norfolk coast? They want to come because it’s a wonderful, wonderful natural beauty. So much wildlife in the winter as well as the summer time so that brings huge benefits to the local economy.
What we don’t want of course is so many people behaving in ways which literally destroys the goose that lays the golden egg of tourism, that damages the environment. It’s really important to work with the tourist industry. I believe they have a responsibility to help protect the environment.
Ultimately whether it’s farming or tourism or if we live in the centre of Norwich in an urban area we all ultimately depend on the health of natural systems for clean air for our well-being, our health. I think everyone feels that nature is part of our fundamental quality of life and I would argue that we all have a responsibility, whatever our work, whether it’s farming or tourism or indeed anything else, to do our bit to work in harmony with nature and help look after the planet because that’s what is our life support system.
If we care about the future for our children and their children then addressing issues like climate change and biodiversity loss and creating a beautiful wildlife rich resilient countryside is incredibly important. Which delivers what we call ecosystems services and natural capital like nature keeping the climate good, nature mopping up our pollution as it so often does through trees nature providing us with fresh air to breathe and healthy soils which our farmers need with pollinators and earthworms.
In so many of our intensive arable fields there are virtually no earthworms because we have used so many pesticides and herbicides. Wild flowers are pretty much confined to our roadside verges or just protected sites like our nature reserves so where are the pollinators? And we know globally that there’s been a huge loss of insect life, perhaps 50% of the insect life we had 50 years ago. You start losing your wildflowers, which means you lose your insects, you lose your birds, you lose your pollinators and you lose your food supply. So these are serious issues which I believe we can all as individuals act but equally we need our governments to make the right policy decisions to protect the wildlife.
Have policy makers have got the message?
I think I have a healthy scepticism about what politicians say and what they deliver. I think it’s very welcome that we’re seeing over the past year a real upsurge in public awareness of issues like climate change and the threats to wildlife and that is putting pressure on politicians.
We have seen a very good 25-year environment plan being produced. If that was implemented I believe that would be very good for the countryside, but with so many businesses, and particularly governments that are elected for a few years ,it’s very easy to say good things that we delivered in 25 years’ time!
What we need are real milestones to hold politicians to account to deliver those on climate change or looking after our countryside and that’s what worries me because at the moment so much attention is focused elsewhere on things like Brexit at the moment it’s difficult to see the delivery. They’re saying the right things, so the message has got through, but we are still really waiting for the hard money and the delivery.
Brexit and wildlife
It’s a concern that there won’t be as much protection for our wildlife when we leave the EU. It’s something that everybody interested in nature should be lobbying the government to make sure we don’t lose any existing protections.
As I understand it, the great repeal bill that’s being called does at least ensure that all of the legislation is brought into UK legislation but there is a danger that it is changed and weakened. In the past the European court would’ve ensured that all European Union countries are following the guidance and looking after the sites so there are certainly real genuine concerns that nature could be damaged as we leave the European Union.
Some of the best things that have happened, such as cleaning up our bathing waters and our blue flag beaches, have come partly through pressures by the European Union. I personally do have some concerns over that and certainly I’ll be keeping a watchful eye doing my little bit to try and hold people to account if there are any signs in the legislation weakening.
Optimism for the future of wildlife
I’m a bit of a manic depressive in regard to the future of wildlife. Catch me on a good day and I’m hugely positive; for example last night I was at Community Biodiversity Awards and we were presenting awards to individuals and community groups who had done fantastic things for protecting Norfolk’s wildlife and engaging their communities. There were two young people at the awards and that’s the future that was so inspiring and I came away very optimistic.
However, the situation is serious. Business as usual is really not an option as we are the first generation in human history ever since our caveman and women forebears who are both aware of the scale of impact that humanity is having on global natural systems. Whether it’s the nitrogen cycle or the biodiversity or the world’s climate we’re aware of what we’re doing and we’re the last generation in human history that can really get things right. We’re in a serious situation and we need to act now, and we actually need to change the way we do things so that we are living more sustainable lifestyles.
I think I’m passionate that there is still time to do it but it is urgent and very, very important and the future of not just the Norfolk Broads but the future of our children and their children really depends on us acting now and not delaying. The sad thing is we know what the problem is, we actually know the solutions. The solution to climate change, as Greta Thunberg has said, is ‘keep the oil in the ground; don’t dig it up and don’t carry on burning it’.
We know the solutions, but it’s actually implementing them and implementing them quickly. That means all of us making lifestyle changes and that’s the tricky thing. So sometimes I’m very positive and think, yes the message is getting through.
Humanity went through two really massive revolutions that changed the way everyone on the planet lived. An agricultural revolution, 10-12,000 years ago when we started farming which led to city growth and more specialising real change. We went through, and Britain bears the responsibility for this, an industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th century. It switched again and changed the way people lived and worked. It changed everything eventually on a planetary scale.
We need a third revolution and we need a sustainability revolution. So that actually the way we lead our lives, the economy works is truly sustainable. Everything in nature is circular, nature wastes nothing and yet so much of what we do is we buy stuff, we use it, we throw it away. That’s not a circle. When I was born back in 1954 there were fewer than 3 billion people on the planet and today there are 7.5 billion, so that’s a big change in my lifetime and I’m told that world population growth will continue growing to at least 10 or 12 billion so we’ve got to all change the way we live so we can live sustainably.
I believe we need to keep optimistic because it’s only when we believe change is possible and that a better future is possible not just for wildlife but for people too that we’re going to make it happen. So I’m a great believer in optimism even though I struggle with it sometimes myself.
David North (b. 1954) talking to WISEArchive on 17th July 2019 in Norwich.