Giles Copper, the First Field Officer (1979 -82) and Jessica Duffy (1986 to 2018 many roles) in conversation with Amy- Jane Beer. Both Giles and Jessica helped to compile the stories for the book.
A Starting with the fact that you were put into a haunted house to begin with ?
Lots of laughter, Jessica looking puzzled!
You said you don’t remember what you’d written !
The building that was so cold it appeared to be haunted, a baptism of fire?
J Actually that was quite late on, when I actually had a job in the office . . . in time some dry lining to improve our thermal efficiency sorted that out. We did always use to joke about it.
A You got more than you bargained for when you joined the Conservation Volunteers? ( more laughter) the seems to be quite a common thread, that people met their future partners.
J I actually met my future partner as a member of Scottish Conservation Projects, SCP, as it was at University, when they broke away from BTCV as it was then, they’ve been in and out like a yoyo (just the once actually ED) depending on the state of the Scottish Government, I think. Yes that is how I first came to join the Conservation Volunteers and I don’t seem to have been able to escape since.
A You clearly haven’t wanted to that much
J I obviously haven’t tried that hard, but I always said I avoided boredom but never doing the same thing for more than three years at a go, there is always a new different angle to take on things.
A Giles when you started it sounds like there was an element of the wild west about it?
G Yeh, and we were quite wild and free, we hadn’t got the faintest idea what we were doing, really, other than keeping the building and working out from it; and gradually, gradually we managed to set a variety of different teams, because it was the days of Job Creation and Thatcher’s Britain. There were Youth Opportunities Schemes as they were called and eventually by the time I left we had three of those going. What was particularly wanted
A The descriptions of this piece of land that was in some way already occupied by, I assume mostly young people, kids who would go in, feral wild feral kids which in a way, I read that and thought you don’t get that any more, and actually that is part of what we often bemoan that that kids don’t go out and hangout; even If they are causing destruction and setting fire to stuff, at least they were out and getting some sort of experience
G Ah the kids would go in the buff (?)
J In think in conversations we’ve had with a lot of different TCV people over the years it turned out that nearly all of them had set fire to something a hedge, someone else’s garage. In their youth they had all done some wild messing about in the countryside, and nobody cared. I know I built, in the village where my parents still live there are these little local nature reserves, we spent ages dragging polythene into those, breaking branches off things to build dens, I don’t think we would be allowed to now, because it is for nature.
A I’ll put my hand up and say I used to go to the woods and set fire to things (Laughter) obviously it is if it causes vast destruction it isn’t a good thing, but it is also a learning experience, you learn by doing all that bad stuff, and kids aren’t allowed to do that anymore. And that level of freedom doesn’t exist for most of them anymore. Maybe it wasn’t all bad.
G The local kids, the local estate the Wythers was a real sink estate about 40 years ago and so there were many kids who had very little hope, lots of kids who couldn’t read and write and they needed some place they could have as their own. Leeds City Council owned Hollybush but didn’t look after it at all and they had asked their own people if anyone from Parks would go and live there and they had said absolutely not a chance because of the effect of the local kids and when we arrived it was like warfare time because they really did reject us being there. So we had airguns fired through the windows, rocks thrown in, the place broken into after we had semi-secured it, things stolen. Eventually we got on with them very well, that was an important part of it, BUT it was such an important starting ground for those of us who went there; we were able to find all sorts of ways of doing things in life., so it was very good
A I’m assuming there wasn’t a risk assessment in sight?
G Not a single one, and you know when I look at things now and I see all the health and safety there is now, I think thank goodness I was back then and not now. We didn’t have a load of accidents, I don’t think, I can’t recall, Ah yes (laughter) we had a dog, unfortunately he had probably been guarding a scrapyard, his name was Sambo and he was an Alsatian, he would, you dared not lie down because he would attack you and Andy fell down in front of Sambo and he left a full jaw print in his arm and nearly took his ear off on this side, but that was like a huge disaster; workwise we didn’t have accidents and we did do tools talks and safety talks and we worked closely with people but we weren’t obsessed with it all the time. There was no background bureaucracy so we were very fortunate we were able to be quite free, the building team could just get on and do stuff without being frightened that they were outside of health and safety, that all came later.
The building team folks were able to learn about their skill and this was great, for they must have had half a dozen local lads who were all learning things they would never have picked up any other way. We had a tree nursery, where local folks, real youngsters straight out of school who would have been unemployed were learning about planting trees about making a tree nursery work. They were lovely things going on, it was great.
ED Risk Assessments were introduced in 1992 by the Health and Safety Executive as poor planning was identified as the cause of too many workplace incidents including far too many fatalities BTCV had (and retains )a strong safety culture, every session started with a tools talk and there were lots of training courses to give people the opportunity to learn. The low accident rate wasn’t achieved by chance! Though the photo of the flimsy tower scaffold up the full height of the back of the building without any safety rails does give me a sense that some people weren’t scared of heights.
A The chance to make mistakes is really important isn’t it. I think part of the trouble of getting people engaged is that fear of doing something wrong, of not doing it by the book.; or not having the right paperwork. There is something enormously encouraging about an environment where you can just have a go and as long as it is done with the will to make things better, and people will respect you for that. And it is difficult to find that sort of set up these days.
G Chris Baines very kindly did me the honour of calling me “an incompetent enthusiast”
A That reminds me of something I read recently by Jake Finds, a gamekeeper effectively a gamekeeper turned rewilder he is down at Holkham Hall, Norfolk; he said so much about rewilding is, it doesn’t have to be about wolves, or lynx, it just has to be about “farming badly”. Actually the benefits of “farming badly” to wildlife are enormous, and the detriment to farming of “farming badly in this particular way” are minimal. In fact they ae still productive, profitable.
J It is a good analogy, like laying a hedge people worry and worry that if they cut it , it will fall over and die and because in fact it is almost impossible to kill hawthorn so don; worry just get in there and it will grow anyway; because you spend the other 50% of your time trying to stop it growing in places. So when people start they are very worried about doing it right
A That resilience is something nature has and that involvement with nature gives people, there is another theme that runs through the book is the mental health benefits of being out there for people., or physical and mental health. I have seen that some doctors are now prescribing outdoor activities whether it is rambling or birdwatching or conservation volunteering in place of prescribing pharmacological solutions. That is something that is very hopeful
G There is recognised nature therapy from a guy in Australia
A Yes, and the “forest bathing” in Japan and I was talking to someone the other day, she runs a website called Forest Bathing UK and she was absolutely scathing about the Japanese approach to it which apparently now is busing people out designated forest bathing forests. And she said the things is people go there and they spend most of the time they are there when they are supposed to be absorbing the benefit of being there trying to find the shot where they can get the without other people in to put on their Instagram or Twitter to find to show that “I’m out there getting my dose of Nature” and the contrast between that very indulgent approach and conservation volunteering is pretty stark isn’t it.
G We also used to have a school’s team that went out and worked with local schools, mostly tree planting obviously in the winter time, tree planting on the periphery of the school playing fields. That was a very good scheme. The grounds below Hollybush, between Hollybush Farm buildings and the Canal was when we came there was completely covered in cobblestones, great piles of cobblestones and old tarmac and a local haulage firm Hargreaves John Iles asked them if they would help us with removing some of these cobbles and piles of stuff ad they said “yes they would” and they sent a lorry and a digger and for days and days and days this lorry was filled and taken and tipped and eventually the Transport Manager from Hargreaves was screaming at me down the phone “You’ve got to stop this” and was I saying “there is still a lot left and I don’t know if I can stop it” and I went and I asked the digger driver if he thought it was a good idea to stop and he said “No I’m going to carry on until I’ve finished and that’s that”. They cleared the whole thing and we made a beautiful schools nature area there and we had a team in, the schools team with landscape architects from the Polytechnic as it was at the time, I guess it is part of the University now, I don’t know if the course still exists, but we had a bunch of folks including Bridget Robinson who was running the schools’ team, absolutely brilliant a very, very good person; and she had a whole team of people and they made a lovely nature area, it has all changed completely now, but that is fine.
A So thinking about change, if someone from those days came back, what would they recognise and what has changed.
J I don’t know, the building is essentially the same, they would recognise the barn probably, everything has been in and out about three times and probably everything has been in different places and gone back to wherever it was when they first started I think as things have move round from one room to another. I think the garden does look really different, it still is the garden that Bridget designed, just it grew Nature did its thing over thirty odd years
A Was there a garden to begin with
J There was just this pile of rubble and then they laid it all out and I think one of the photographs that Hazel posted really near the beginning (of the history project) was “where is the photograph” , was “no it is still the pond, the pond hasn’t moved, it is just that all the trees around it, and things around it are thirty years bigger” It looks like a really different place although the bones of it are still there, which is quite impressive I think
G That’s all true. Leeds City Council had perceived it as a place that they could dump stuff and they hadn’t really thought about looking after it. The Countryside Commission was an organisation that found money for environmental things at the time and the guy who ran it, and absolutely lovely man and I can’t remember his name at all and that’s a real pity; he was very keen that he the Conservation Volunteers were involved. If Leeds City Council wanted to plant a tree it would cost them thousands of pounds, it would be a big tree that came off the back of a lorry and local kids were quite likely to bust it within weeks of it being put in the ground. Whereas if we planted, we planted whips, tiny little trees all over the place, with local kids with volunteers, so that nobody damaged it afterwards, a completely different approach, and this man from the Countryside Commission understood that immediately and we cost so little. We were so lean and hungry in comparison with Government departments even local government departments, we could do things for more or less nothing and we were so enthusiastic.
A Do you think being lean and hungry like that, a phrase you use in the book, great description, and you seem to be suggesting that made you more effective rather than less effective?
G On a local level, yes very much more effective, because whereas when people are asked to do things in local government would end up saying “no, no can’t do that there are no funds” we would find ways we could do things, even if we couldn’t afford it. I’m sure local government does the same thing, we used to get funds for one thing and use it for another without a doubt just to get things done.
A And that has got more difficult hasn’t it, with every penny having to be accounted for
G I haven’t had any recent experience, but I believe it has,
A So where is investment most needed now, either within your organisation or more broadly, if a fairy godmother, which I’m sadly not could wave a magic wand and produce thousands of pounds for you
G Getting people involved in re-naturing, rebuilding a relationship with nature before we’ve done it
J And the land as well, getting land freed out of farming somehow as well, just all those sterile acres of well farmed land that doesn’t have room for wildlife. At the moment there is this massive “we must plant more trees” I know what John has said in terms of White Rose Forest, all the land that was easy to plant, the land that local authorities had control over, I think that comes down to Government getting a grip, really. Find enough space, if you have the space, people will come. BTCV would be brilliant at organising those people, if people knew what they had to do, there is a will out there to go do it, it is just being able to get on with it.
A Do you work with other organisations or are you very much a group unto yourselves ?
J Don’t know, we are the wrong people to ask this, I now work for the Leeds Older People’s Forum and Giles is retired and does Bikeability stuff with Schools kids now, but I’m still very, very interested in learning and relearning about nature, as you said at the beginning we have less than ten years most likely and if you look at the recent weather we’ve had, it is extremely urgent.
A Well, you’ve more than done your bit, and I will know you will continue. Lovely talking to you.