Nature cure

HELEN C. NEAVE recalls how she swapped scalpels for spades

Ten years ago, I put down my scalpel and took off my scrubs, hat and mask for the last time. After eight years as a consultant surgeon I was turning a corner I hadn’t really seen coming. Now at work, I’m more likely to be dressed in wellies and waterproofs and clutching a spade.

My surgical training was arduous and longer for me than for many colleagues, as I had completed it part time to allow me to look after my three children. I had also studied for a Masters in Postgraduate Education, and it was into the realms of quality management of postgraduate education that my first ‘redirection’ took me. My career took me to a senior leadership role in the NHS, overseeing education and training at a time when all parts of the NHS were undergoing restructure after restructure. After four years, it became impossible for me to do my job to the standard I wished to do it, so I took a deep breath, and left.

At around the time I saw my last patient, my husband and I had been getting increasingly concerned about the destruction we were witnessing in the natural world. So we decided to take action! We bought 26 acres of rough grazing land in Yorkshire with the intention of giving it back to Nature. Bounded on three sides by the river Nidd, it was prone to flooding, so wasn’t attractive to the arable farming neighbours – but it was perfect for us.

We left our land for a year or so to get to know it a little better – but in honesty, it was not much more than grass. So we planted 20,000 trees, with support from the Woodland Trust- and the trees brought magic! As soon as the trees had their first flowers, fruits and seeds, they attracted insects and birds, and then mammals and birds of prey arrived. We suddenly had a full ecosystem. When the young woodland reached six or seven years old, we were so thrilled that we decided to do it again, but bigger.

We decided to buy some more land, and continue giving space back to nature, but this time make it a business. When we saw Bank Woods, near Summerbridge in the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, we knew we had found the perfect piece of land. It is 110 acres, with ancient woodland, unimproved upland, swift-flowing brooks and hay meadows. Once again, the first job was to get to know the land better, and we discovered that the land had been ‘benignly’ farmed. Seen on Google maps, it was much yellower than the chemically-induced bright green of neighbouring farms. This was ideal for our intentions. The ancient woodlands were wonderful, but with signs of over-browsing by deer, and fragmented into four blocks separated by fields. They contained an amazing abundance of wild flowers, including many ancient woodland indicator species. 

We thought carefully, and sought advice about the best way to manage the land for biodiversity.  We knew we wanted to plant more trees – but where should they go? We discovered that ‘red-listed’ ground nesting birds, lapwing and curlew were nesting in our upland grassy areas. We knew they would leave if there were too many trees from which predators could swoop on their eggs and chicks. We also appreciated that linking the ancient woodlands back together would provide more cover for the many woodland birds, foxes and hares we had seen. So, we created a much bigger continuous area for woodland wildlife. We had to invest in a deer fence to keep those cute but destructive animals out of our new woodland planting, and the ancient woodlands. The upper parts of the land, about 50 acres, we have left for (relatively small-scale) rewilding. We have a small herd of Belted Galloway cattle, and a recent addition of six Exmoor ponies – who, all together, are our conservation grazing team. Their style of grazing and disturbance of the soil has already allowed the return of many wildflowers not seen on that area while it was heavily grazed by sheep. Earlier this year, much to our delight, Bank Woods was designated as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation.

We are painfully aware that not only is our planet facing a climate crisis, caused by human action, but we are also living through the sixth mass extinction, with 60% of wildlife lost since 1970. We therefore see it as a moral imperative to do everything in our power to address these two linked and devastating planetary emergencies. We have taken many smaller actions to create habitat and increase biodiversity. We have dug ponds, made leaky dams, put up bird boxes, and restored wildflower hay meadows.

All these actions cost money, and so we have established various income streams, all deeply connected to nature. We have an eco-friendly holiday cottage within our nature reserve, and allow guests exclusive access to our woodlands and meadows. We sell eco-friendly, plastic-free products. We offer tree dedications, and dedications of ponds and wildflower meadows. We also offer carbon offsetting through tree planting for individuals and businesses, including a popular subscription schemes. We have many business partners for whom we plant trees, and this has proved a wonderful way for them to attract new business, by sharing their ‘green’ credentials. Recently, we have formed a partnership with a company which has developed a method to combine the ashes from a cremation with growing compost, in which a tree can be planted. (Cremation ashes can otherwise be toxic.) The memorial tree can then be planted in our new memorial woodland.

In parallel to this rewilding of the land, I have experienced a personal rewilding! As a surgeon, my world was one of precision, urgent timescales, accurate planning, and predictable, managed outcomes. I gave one patient at a time my undivided attention. As a senior NHS clinical manager, I discovered that managing whole departments was much less precise than dealing with one patient at a time; timescales were slower, and outcomes more difficult to define. I now often have wind-swept hair with twigs in it, unlike the theatre cap or neat haircut demanded by my previous two careers. My work attire is wellies and waterproofs, instead of heels and a neat suit.

I have become accustomed to very long timescales. During my career as a surgeon, we sometimes had to rush a patient to theatre within minutes; in complete contrast, the timescales for my work now might be measured in years. If for some reason we don’t manage to visit one of our new woodlands for a few weeks, we know that no harm will come to it; nature will just get on with doing its thing; no theatre list, spread sheets or project plans required. We have had to let go of the feeling of needing to be in control; ultimately, Nature is in charge. The most obvious signs of this come with the weather – storms can easily fell the mature trees within our ancient woodlands, and this is something we embrace! A little bit of chaos and destruction brings about new life – a fallen tree will become a new home for countless invertebrates, and light newly let through to the woodland floor will encourage wildflowers.  

I have never lost the urge to help people, and I know our ancient woodlands and meadows can do wonders for wellbeing. I have completed training to become a ‘Natural Mindfulness Guide’, and we will soon be starting a programme of workshops in which people come together in a group facilitated by a mental health counsellor to learn conservation and rural craft activities, for the benefit of their mental health.

The trajectory of my career reveals a steady growth in spheres of influence. As a consultant surgeon, I could obviously operate on only one patient at a time. As a senior NHS manager, my influence was much greater – by improving the training across my region I could improve the quality of care for thousands of patients. And now my work has an even bigger aim – trying to save the planet! I feel hugely fortunate to be able to help nature in this way. It feels like a homecoming – and the most important operation I have ever done.