Blog is written by Zoe Bullivant

You might not think this but Devizes is an urban metropolis...

Having grown up in a small village in East Yorkshire and then moving to Ambleside in the Lakes to study conservation, Devizes, for me is big. So why come here? The conservation movement was founded in the Lake District with the aim to preserve the iconic Thirlmere valley; the movement’s focus was solely on the preservation, protection, or restoration of the natural environment and of wildlife. Throughout the course of my studies, I have come to the realisation that this approach may not be adequate, society needs to be included into that mix in order to make conservation sustainable. This understanding that we are a cog in an eternal natural cycle is a belief I believe the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust share. So that is how I ended up here undertaking a ten-month work placement, a long way from home but having a ball.

For the first five months,

I was warmly welcomed by the Milestones team. After a day of introductions, we jumped straight into their summer SPLASH programme. Milestones is a project that aims to connect vulnerable and marginalised young people aged 11-24 to their local natural environment through practical activities in the outdoors. Over school holidays, Milestones partner with SPLASH to provide 9-16-year-olds who are facing challenges in life (these could be economic, social or health) with positive experiences in nature; these activities aim to raise the self-esteem and confidence and to empower these people. Each activity came with a different creative and lovingly designed theme, for example, Greek Mythology, Mad Hatters Tea Party and the Underwater world, all delivered at Wiltshire Wildlife Trust reserves through the forest schools ethos meaning the participants are in control of how the day goes. Before I started, I had a lot of anxieties and doubts about my ability to work with these groups have had no experience of working with younger people (or really people in general) before, I couldn’t see what use I could be. But every day was completely different, a different theme, a different location and a different group; though some individuals returned, the dynamic of the group was different. As such, we were always learning and experiencing new things, this partnered with the child-centred aspect meant that it didn’t matter about me or my experience. To paraphrase Deleuze, we learn nothing from those who say ‘do as I do’, rather through learning to ‘do with me’ allows us to grow as individuals and develop through exploring each other’s differences. Through this, I was taught how to immerse myself in the group, to be there with and for them and to learn and have fun – and have fun we did!

With the end of the holidays,

came the start of the school terms and the beginning of regular school group outings. The inner workings of each school group and each group within the schools in the way that they interacted with us and each other and the way that they responded to different stimuli ranged massively. This made working with each group completely different and with that came different experiences and challenges and made time here more exciting. Some groups liked to have a sense of responsibility for an individual role and displayed this through repetition. An example of this being a college group who had procured funding from Student Eats to reduce food waste by making and selling apple juice made from the apples from one of the trusts orchards that would have been left for windfalls. Over the weeks, each student found the role that they felt most suited too and created their own production line; sterilising, cutting, scratting, pressing, bottling, and pasteurising (in the first week turning the 70kilos of apples they’d picked in the morning into 12 large bottles!). This enabled the students to gain a thorough understanding of that process and a larger sense of pride over the outcome.

Other groups preferred having goals,

something to work towards; this was fulfilled by working towards AQA Unit Awards, for example in coppicing. While coppicing scallop shapes along the paths of one of the reserves, the students were learning about what and why they were doing though asking the questions that they were interested in whilst also creating areas of higher light intensity, increasing the overall structural diversity of the woodland and provide sheltered herb-rich grassy areas – ideal for butterflies and other wildlife. Then, with the coppice materials, they were then able to make their own mallets and stools to take home as a tangible outcome as well as the knowledge that they have helped to create a positive environment for wildlife.

Running throughout the project is an awareness of Maslow’s pyramid of needs (the basic needs that need to be met in order for learning to take place); the basics being warmth, food, drink and safety. Though many of the students had no idea how their food came to be in their lunch boxes. From this came what was probably my favourite session with a school group - a trip to Lidl. The teams had to plan their group’s food to a budget, selecting it and buy it then prepare and cook their meals over a fire.  While they were tucking into their bacon butties and warm apple pies with custard, you could see the you could see the enjoyment and pride in their eyes that they had made it themselves and it was great to see them start thinking and asking questions about what was going into the products that they bought (or didn’t).

Due to the long-term nature of the school groups,

the focus was able to be more on individual and group development and it over the weeks you could see the growth in teamwork, confidence, skills and nature knowledge through deeper interactions with the environment and within the group. These groups have also shown me that if we embrace our individual differences we can learn so much more and in many different and exciting ways that help to bring out the best in both ourselves and others. After all, as Roald Dahls’ Fantastic Mr Fox says… ‘We are all different but there’s something kind of fantastic about that isn’t there?’

Also over my time with Milestones,

I have also been visiting Lakeside Care Farm which offers meaningful education and work-based experience in nature conservation, farming and horticulture, as well as Forest School activities to individuals with specific needs.  My time here began over the summer holidays when no students were in. So, whilst helping with site maintenance and caring for the animals, I was able to form a relationship with the site and appreciate its beauty. Set within the Lower Moor Farm reserve, it is a tranquil haven surrounded by an expanse of lakes, meadows and farmland; but it was the arrival of the students really brought it to life. The whole place is given a new meaning, a limitless new purpose; a tree can become a fairy den, a castle and a safe space, a person can become a driver, a plumber, a bird or a friend.  Working 1:1 or in close proximity to a small group of individuals, you can really get to know them and see the development that occurs over time. Whether it is designing and building a bird box, asking questions to ‘the bird ringer’ or wading into a small pond to rescue a downed dragonfly; achievements are being made every day. One of my favourite things about the care farm is that the students and staff can see how the work that they do has a purpose or an impact. They build a shed to keep the animals safe and warm, clear a drainage ditch to allow the water to run more freely so to reduce flood impacts, plant and nurture a seed to grow a tomato or a pumpkin. There is a special sort of relationship between the people there and the place, they are learning together, developing together and evolving together. I can only wonder about where it’ll be next week, let alone next year!

My time with the trust so far...

has enabled me to apply the knowledge I learnt through university and has helped me gain a wider understanding of how conservation can be applied in the ‘real world’. It has really reaffirmed my belief that to create a sustainable future, we need a society who understands and cares about the environment; If we follow the examples of the Trust and help others have positive experiences relating to ‘nature’, we educate and increase awareness about the ‘natural world’, we will automatically appreciate and care more for our planet. I feel that my knowledge, self-confidence and character have thrived and evolved in a way that I could never have hoped and I am grateful to everybody involved with the trust for making it possible – I’m loving it!

The Milestones project is one of 31 Our Bright Future projects across the country. Each one is equipping 11-24-year-olds to make a difference in their local community and for the environment. Our Bright Future is a £33 million programme funded by the National Lottery through the Big Lottery Fund.