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South Tyne Valley conservationist’s wildlife recovery celebrated in new national study

Williamston sunrise

While many of Britain’s nature reserves were closed through lockdown, conservation work continued on private land across Britain. Despite that, the men and women working hard to make our much-loved moorland thrive are often overlooked.

One of those was Neville Gill, whose work on the Williamston Estate in Slaggyford goes on come rain or shine.

Neville Gill

Neville is one of nine previously untold stories celebrated in a new publication from leading conservation charity, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).

Featuring in this series of case studies has helped to raise awareness for the work done by Neville and his fellow conservationists which, despite their successes, often go overlooked. With support from the GWCT, Neville recently featured on the hit BBC show Countryfile, discussing moorland management and challenging preconceptions some might have about the uplands.

It’s no wonder he was chosen. The changes he has made have been remarkable – over 13km of ditches have been blocked to rewet the blanket bog and benefit sphagnum moss, they have more than halved the number of sheep and last year managed to plant 2,000 trees. With a wider range of plants and more insects to feed their chicks, birdlife is thriving. “Before we took the farming in hand and halved the sheep we never saw a lapwing” notes Neville, “last year we had several successful nests.”

Williamston tree planting

Williamston is designated as a SSSI (site of special scientific interest), Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection area and Neville’s restoration work has seen the moor’s status move from ‘unfavourable’ in 2000 to ‘recovering’ today. Black grouse are among a range of threatened birds to benefit, including curlew and golden plover, plus raptors such as short-eared owl, merlin and hobby.

Alongside great progress and considerable change, Neville never loses sight of the passing nature of his involvement on the moor. When asked, he’s keen to point out that “I’m just the temporary custodian of this place. For 300 years every generation has done their bit and my aim is to pass it on in better shape than I found it.”

In his foreword to the Moorland Conservationists collection, former environment minister Richard Benyon said: “The management of Britain’s uplands is remarkable … it is a story of generations of skill and knowledge, combined with modern technologies and science. The actions of moorland managers are the last bulwark in what is a crisis of species decline across Britain.”

Every conservationist in this collection tells their own success story. Roy Burrows has made an impressive conservation effort on the Summerstone Estate, Tom Orde-Powlett is helping waders to thrive in Wensleydale, Geoff Eyre is restoring Derbyshire’s precious heather moors, James Mawle is improving both land and river on his North Yorkshire family farm and the work done by George Winn-Darley has attracted 16 birds of prey species to the North York Moors.

In Scotland, private land management is helping some of our most threatened wildlife. The efforts of gamekeeper Alex Jenkins have made Edinglassie home to 38 breeding pairs of curlew, while Andrew Farquharson and his gamekeeper Alex Shand are working to recover numbers of golden eagles and capercaillie. It isn’t just birdlife that is bucking the trend. In Perthshire, reduced grazing has seen native plants reappear for the first time in decades, along with the insects they support, all thanks to Sir John Kemp-Welch and his former headkeeper, Ronnie Kippen.

This series of case studies was written by Joe Dimbleby, who is keen to break the stereotypical view of our uplands. “The stories of these conservationists show that, with the right approach, it is possible to combine thriving local communities with a productive countryside and the preservation of our precious heather moorland and its biodiversity” he said.

To read about these conservation success stories, a limited number of copies are available online for £3.99 at https://www.gwctshop.org.uk/collections/whats-new/products/moorland-conservationists-the-untold-story

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