The Conservation Corps was founded in 1959 by the Council for Nature to provide a force of volunteers to manage the then newly established National Nature Reserves. One to two week long or weekend residential projects proved popular and people began to ask if they could do projects closer to home and began to form “local” conservation corps.
In 1970 the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers was formed to run the National Conservation Corps and provide support and an umbrella body for the local groups. The driving forces were people like Richard Jennings with Anne Singer and other hard working staff and volunteers.
The national office was for a while at Regents Park Zoo, and regional offices were established in Scotland, the Midlands and in due course the North.
Frank Mawby was the first Regional Officer for the north from 1974-78.
I became a BTCV volunteer in 1969 working locally in Leicestershire. In spring 1972 I decided to take a ‘Conservation Corps’ working holiday on a residential task on Inchcailloch Island, part of the Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve. It proved to be a life-changing event for both my career and personal life. I began my conservation career, met and married my wife Shelagh and gained a life experience that many would envy.
During the summer of 1972, I gave up my job as a Building Surveyor with the East Midlands Gas Board and began my conservation career with BTCV in Scotland thanks to Bernard and Hilary Barker who ran the Scottish Office in Doune near Stirling. I spent 6 months as a volunteer before being offered a job as a Conservation Officer. This in turn led to the offer to set up the North of England region.
Initially I spent 6 months at the London Zoo office, sleeping on Andrew Brown’s floor, to learn the ropes before opening up the Northern Office. Anne Singer (now Andrew’s wife) was the BTCV secretary, Anne was a real driving force and inspiration.
In the early months, my office was a desk in the Keep Britain Tidy office in Bradford. Tools and equipment were stored in an outbuilding at Tong Hall, where KBT were negotiating for an office for themselves and BTCV on the top floor of the Hall. Before the offices were ready, we moved to a makeshift office above the tool store.
Mark Andrew, Director of KBT was the driving force and he was on BTCV North Steering Group (at the time every local office had a steering group of volunteers and countryside professionals).
I remember Tong very well as I was the first Regional Officer and set up the region. It covered the whole of Northern England- Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham, Northumberland and Cumbria. I think we covered Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire too. I certainly recall running tasks and a training course at Rufford Country Park.
A chap called Pete Johnson joined me as field officer, and Sally Wray was the first secretary, when Sally left, a lady called Liz joined us (I cannot remember her surname). Our main roles were publicising the BTCV, recruiting volunteers for weekend task and organising training courses for task leaders. We publicised the volunteer role widely to potential ‘user bodies’ and worked for private landowners, Local Authorities, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and other similar bodies. Regional Officers were also tasked with fund raising to contribute to the annual running costs. Training course I recall were fencing, tree surgery, tree felling, chain saw use, tree planting and dry stone walling. We travelled quite long distances for weekend work going into Northumberland on a number of tasks, including the National Trust property at Wallington Hall for a tree surgery course. Many tasks were local and one of the first took several weekends restoring the large pond in the grounds of Tong Hall.
The accommodation for weekend tasks was often in village halls or occasionally in tents. A volunteer was recruited to cook and cheese and chutney or, dare I say it Spam the usual filling. Cooked meals in the evening were very basic as was porridge for breakfast. The Friday before a task was devoted to ensuring all the tools and equipment were in the trailer followed by shopping for the food for everyone booked on the task.
I sourced longer residential tasks for the BTCV holiday period task programme, which could be from one to three weeks long. This also meant identifying experience volunteers to lead the tasks.
We worked closely with HQ, then based in premises in London Zoo, and got tremendous support from them, especially Anne Singer and Andrew Brown. Council members, many of whom were volunteers themselves were also supportive. The annual reunion was always an event to look forward to as were staff meetings.
I spent a lot of time helping to establish new and existing local groups one of whom was the group based in Carlisle set up by Andrew Dacre.
The Don and Dearne Action group came into being and I gave them much help to get going. They were a large, energetic and successful group led by Mike Wilde and John Isles.
Occasionally we met obstacles working for Local Authorities when the Unions raised issues about why volunteers were being used to do work that their members should be doing as paid work.
Other interesting memories included a Landrover gearbox failure near Newcastle on the way home from a task in Northumberland. I argued with Landrover about this and they agreed to replace the Gearbox although BTCV had to pay labour. Scrub clearance and path work restoration or path creation work were regular jobs and some memorable tasks were spent a Castle Eden Dene at Peterlee New Town working for Bill Monk and his forester John, I remember well John’s advice on cutting trees down ‘think three times before cutting it down. We constructed a new path round the Dene.
I gave many talks and a fewd radio interviews and well remember the presenter at Radio Leeds who said I had an interesting message but a rather monotone delivery in my rather flat Leicestershire accent. I never forgot her words of advice and I like to think that from thereon my talks and interviews improved. Talks were always nervy and I spent hours rehearsing and timing them with the slides including writing a script. One trip was to the Isle of Man to discuss setting up a new local group, not one of my best because my talk was a damp squib. I hope they started a group.
A time consuming project that turned into a great opportunity to get BTCV established in Lancashire was the Rivington Project. Rivington Gardens and originally a big house was part of the Leverhulme Estate. The house and grounds were eventually abandoned, the house was demolished and the gardens and paths became overgrown with masses of rhododendron. The site went into the ownership of the North West Water Authority and it was they who approached me with a proposition to fund the restoration of the site for public access. After my time the project was extended to moorland work around the reservoirs and led to the establishment of Tan Pits Farm, another residential centre like Hollybush originally was, it closed on the late 1990s. When the discussion came round to funding a project leader, I knew this was the job for one of my volunteers, John Hough. John was just completing his studies at Durham University where he was taught by David Bellamy, (Bellamy was on the first ever BTCV task in 1959). John really made the project go with his tireless work and leadership skills.
I ran quite a lot of weekend tasks and training courses for task leaders. Whilst I was at Tong Hall the Tong/ Cockersdale Countryside project was set up led by a good friend of mine Bill Shaw, (who was later chair of the West Yorkshire Local Committee and helped find Hollybush for BTCV).
I have many fond memories if my brief interlude in Yorkshire, which gave me an excellent grounding in wildlife management work and conservation.