Since the great big 180 degree turnaround of January ’19, I’ve learnt rather a lot of surprising things about life (both human, and wild) beyond nature reserve wardening.
When everything turned upside down at the very end of last year, I had to re-evaluate a lot of stuff; not least where my career would go… or, indeed even if I still wanted to pursue a career at all. Could I not just bugger off in a caravan, with a nonchalent middle finger up at the whole sorry mess I’d got myself into?
Put bluntly, the conservation/ecology sector (especially within the charities – big and small alike) is in a bit of a state these days. Without getting political about the roots of all this stuff, many of my peers are becoming quite overworked, overstretched and underpaid, across the board. Resources are getting sparser, funding is squeezed and in some cases withdrawn altogether. In the onset of the Anthropocene, we’re trying to do all we can to preserve the wild, but circumstances are making that quite challenging.
With all that on my mind, I contemplated many things, including leaving land management entirely, and simply taking whatever employment I could find back here in the ‘home shire’. (Having said that, I did actually also consider simply packing up and heading for Anglesey. There would after all be work for me up there, a markedly lower cost of living, as well as a more sedate pace of life; just the antidote to the chaos of the past few months.)
But I’d only just become ‘settled’ again. I was ensconced back in the fold with my oldest, most loyal friends, and I was starting to enjoy my old haunts again. And it felt so nice to be in just the one place, not in limbo between two ‘worlds’; two counties… two sides of the Thames.
So, settled back ‘South’, once I’d picked myself up… and dusted myself off after that big fall, I set about earning a living again. Freelancing as an illustrator had tided me over until I was fit and healthy again. But I needed to get back outside and feel normal once more; to feel the sun on my neck and the wind in my hair. To look in the mirror at the day’s end and see the grime in the lines in my face, and feel good about it.
Driving around one warm afternoon, I pulled into a smallholding where a sign advised of farm labourers needed. As a qualified tractor driver, (with most of my other ‘tickets’ still valid, too) and with my varied livestock husbandry experience, I was put to work by the charismatic boss two days later. I was intrigued by the more hands-off approach here, and by the results of some of the more non-interventional ways of doing things. The place was actually brimming with life; it wasn’t sterile, like so many other places that aren’t managed as nature reserves. It was in itself like a little nature reserve, running like clockwork as a (very busy and chaotic) business. Every stereotype about farm businesses neglecting wildlife were certainly defied here. The meadows, not overstocked with animals, were in fact very sensitively grazed and positively chock-full of butterflies, micro moths, bumblebees and flies aplenty. Mosaics of short and longer turf were spattered with the bright colours of vetches, clovers and trefoils. This’ll do very nicely, I thought to myself…
I spent the next month tending sheep, repairing fencing, sweeping, sweeping, more sweeping, making and packaging chaff, packaging and labelling animal feeds, loading hay and horsefeed onto vehicles, mucking out stables, and doing just about anything else I could turn a hand to. It was thoroughly gruelling but good, fun, honest labour. Getting home after every shift, I was grey from the dust and filth… and I loved it. I started to feel like myself again.
But more interestingly, that chaotic month at the smallholding gave me a valuable insight into another side of land management. It had given me the opportunity to see how things could work for wildlife away from the world of reserve wardening, and the procedures, policies and practices that I’d been so bound by for the past few years. It had been both fascinating and thought provoking.
When my time there was done, I was ready for something altogether different, yet again…
Golf courses make up 2% of the UK’s land surface, at around 270,000 hectares. They are typically thought of as pristinely manicured, vast monocultures where everything looks immaculate, rather like the well groomed beards on so many of the gentlemen who play the sport.
When I went to work at a golf centre however, I saw yet another new side to land management, and those preconceptions I had were challenged once again. I’d seen the job advertisement online for a groundskeeper/golf centre assistant, but was unsure whether I’d be employed at such a place, knowing absolutely naff-all about golf, golfcourses, or greenkeeping. I was a total sports-turf virgin.
I gave it a go regardless, and breezed through a nicely informal interview the following day, with that new cocky, carefree attitude I’d come to adopt since recovering from the big balls-up of January ’19. I was quite frank about my golf virginity, but explained that I was a good, hardworking groundskeeper with ample machinery qualifications, and bags of experience dealing with general Joe public.
I was offered the job on returning from my surprise travels around the southwest, and started at the golf centre the following Monday. It was a brilliant – and once again, chaotic – culture shock. Since Christmas, I had gone from nature reserve wardening, to small farm labour, to sport. I was by this time self employed on the side, contracting as a sole trader, too. I took on any grounds maintenance work (as well as domestic stuff, as well) I was competent in and able to do. Doing my own accounts was a new skill I quickly had to learn, but I relished it.
If someone had told me a year ago, that this would be the next path, I’d simply not have believed it all. It would have thought the whole thing ludicrous. But life does throw some curveballs at us along the way. And so, from July until October, I spent my mornings divoting, leafblowing, golfball collecting, worm-cast sweeping, dew-brushing, strimming, mowing and manicuring, in deepest, Middle Class suburbia. The heart of the Surrey stockbroker belt was an alien environment, and believe it or not, quite daunting to a land girl like myself, who’d only ever really known wildlife conservation.
I soon learned that golf courses can in fact quite ‘gentle’ places, and need not be hostile to wildlife at all… and this revelation made me feel strangely reassured about my place in the world…