In the Spotlight – An Interview with Volunteer Manager Neil Oxley
Neil is one of the Trust’s eight Site Managers across the North England region whose generic work role is to look after anything between four to sixty different sites, often with very different types of management required, depending on the age, size and rural or urban nature of the woods in their areas.
Neil – and his volunteer wardens – look after fifty sites, with about two-thirds of them urban. Nick said he loves his urban woodlands, although immediately before our call he’d just returned from visiting one of his favourite rural sites, Dutton Park.
I asked Neil about his background, and what brought him to work with the Trust.
“I did a Geography degree and realising I needed some practical skills, I went into volunteering with The Conservation Volunteers organisation, working in the northern uplands on various projects,” he told me.
“I then went on to work for local authorities in Ranger and countryside management roles. I gained useful people management skills in my local authority jobs, but it was all office based, admin based, full of meetings etc and I missed the outdoors and practical work I’d been doing when I volunteered.”
I recognised this from others’ professional journeys in conservation – and my own in education: how management roles can take us away from what we experience as our ‘core business’.
“But I was lucky enough to get this job at the Trust, where I’ve been for just over nine years now,” Neil added cheerfully.
We started our ‘favourites’ exploration with trees. Neil’s response was immediate:
“It’s the rowan, or mountain ash. I love the blossom, and the gorgeous red or orange berries, though mostly it’s because of how they grow: often, in upland landscapes, they seem to grow out of nothing – just a crevice in a rocky outcrop.”
I enjoyed this reminder: I thought of rowans and hawthorns I’ve seen growing out of cracks in limestone pavements in the Yorkshire Dales.
“We have a mountain ash I planted in our garden 15 years ago,” said Neil. “It’s nearly 20 feet tall now – I love it. And the birds love the berries in winter.”
I asked Neil about his other nature joys, and he told me about the red squirrels who live in an area near Formby, protected by the National Trust. Apparently, unlike red squirrels generally who are normally shy and difficult to spot (sadly, impossible to spot in most parts of England!), these are very friendly and will appear to be fed with the special food you can buy in the NT shop.
Neil, who’s spent a lot of time in the Peak District, also mentioned his love for upland landscapes in general:
“So much quieter than other places… so few people… I can lose myself up there,” he mused.
“But equally what I enjoy most about my job is the community aspect of the urban sites because lots of people can – and do – enjoy them. Yes, there can be issues and challenges with mis-use of urban sites, but most people, just local passers-by, dog-walkers etc, love their ‘own’ little wood and want to care for it. Some choose to become volunteers – which is great, and they’re another part of this job I love – but whoever they are, people need their local woodland area, and we’ve heard a lot about this during the pandemic.”
Woods on our doorsteps indeed… long may they survive… in many cases because of the commitment of our Site Managers, our volunteers and other local folk.
Daphne Pleace – Volunteer Whittle Reporter