Photograph: Katharine Davies

Photograph: Katharine Davies


Jo Denbury, Features Writer  

We assemble at the kissing gate. There is animated talk among the children of foxes’ dens and badgers, creepy crawlies, slugs and bugs. And, in our shared uniform of woollies and wellies, there is a similarly buoyant murmur among the adults. On this brisk winter morning we are taking a walk, one we have taken many times before. This time, however, we’re in the company of Simon Ford, wildlife and countryside advisor for the South West at the National Trust. This otherwise ordinary outing is starting to feel very much like an adventure. 

Simon has recently moved to Sherborne and brings with him an infectious enthusiasm for conservation. Within our first few strides, a small unassuming tree that we have all walked past countless times draws an excited and curious crowd. Lloyd – husband of our photographer and self-confessed amateur entomologist – has found a slug. But it is no ordinary slug. This tiny thing is a Crimean keeled slug, or tandonia cf. cristata to give it its proper name. It is, Lloyd tells us, a rare find – and this sparks a discussion as to how such an exotic creature came to be living under a rock in Sherborne. One theory is that many of these slugs were transported here as eggs on the muddy boots of soldiers returning from the war. The realisation that we are only a couple of miles from the site of a WWII military hospital site has the children gleefully joining the imagined dots of this little slug’s family tree.

“Children are innate wildlife enthusiasts,” Simon observes. “To harness that interest and engage with them now is crucial. Some will then carry that love of nature into adulthood and pass it on to future generations.” A childlike view of the living world is something to cherish if we, as adults, are to spread the word and make a difference.

Soon there are more cries of joy. A stag has been spotted standing stock-still, high on the hill above us. He watches us with a disapproving air. There are many types of deer in the Dorset countryside. This one is a fallow deer, a breed introduced to England by William the Conqueror. There are also sika, muntjac and white hart to be found in this part of the country. We continue on, the children sprinting ahead.

Simon’s own interest in ecology and the outdoors began early. “I think it really clicked when I was about seven,” he says. “Our teacher took us out into the garden for pond- dipping and that was probably when the seed was sown. As a teenager I volunteered for the Sussex Wildlife Trust and did a lot of coppicing. It was only later that I realised you could actually get paid for it!” He went on to study ecology and conservation, working as a ranger for a number of national parks before joining the National Trust in 1989.

“Nature is a burning platform at the moment,” he explains. “Wherever you go there is a horrific decline in almost every group of animal and plant. Not only are these plants nice to see, but some of them are medicines for the future.” While the perception may be that we are all waiting for a new wonder drug to be discovered in the Amazon, the truth is that our native flora offer a myriad of possibilities. Aspirin, for example, comes from willow, while a product of the yew tree is used for breast cancer drugs.

But it is not only wild habitats that are under threat. Rare arable plants which only grow in cultivated landscapes have seen a 96% decline in recent years, Simon tells us. “We have to remember we are just one species among so very many,” he intones, his concern palpable. “To wreak such havoc in the name of ‘progress’ is unforgivable and entirely foolhardy.”

The children sip hot chocolate to the busy chatter
of finches travelling in gangs from tree to tree. A single wren, meanwhile, darts in and out of the tall grass and along the fence. Drinks now downed and faces branded with chocolate grins, a log is carefully overturned in
the hope of discovering a dormant slow worm or two. Instead, we are greeted by more slugs and a giant bracket fungus. Onward and into the woods, a silence falls. This is ancient badger territory and now, without prompting, small voices speak only in respectful whispers. Creatures are everywhere here and will show themselves only if we clumsy humans embrace the stillness.

We come upon an oak tree, its girth so wide it takes six of us to hug it. Oaks can live for over 1,000 years. They are short, wide and normally hollow, with rough bark. The branches look like antlers. I think of our stag, picking its way delicately over the sodden leaves of the woodland floor. The children start to climb and explore the tree’s ancient hollows, dark places offering the woodland fraternity shelter from the onset of winter. “Nature is a key objective for us at the National Trust, both its protection and our engagement with it,” adds Simon. “We need to get out there and enjoy nature, not preserve it in aspic.” Looking admiringly at the vast oak, Simon estimates that is likely to be around 600 years old. We all share his hope that it will last at least another 200.

In times of uncertainty, I find myself turning to nature – to earth and water, soil and sky, to muddy fields and ancient woodlands. Placing a hand on the trunkof an oak tree that fought its way from the sod some 600 years ago puts things into a very clear perspective. Contemporary concepts and political bickering are somehow suddenly trivialised, belittled. Here, losing boots in boggy ground, we are liberated.

It’s time to head back. The badgers remain hidden in their subterranean homes, no doubt aware of our presence and relieved to hear our crunching footsteps retreating overhead. We emerge from the woods into the early afternoon sun, rosy cheeked and gladdened. Our young companions are off again, sprinting into the wild.
With thanks to Sherborne Castle Estate