The story behind the creation of new woodland near Kirk Hammerton

PUBLISHED: 10:37 24 August 2018 | UPDATED: 10:37 24 August 2018

Helen and Christopher Neave Photo: Sam Oakes

Helen and Christopher Neave Photo: Sam Oakes

© Sam Oakes Photography

A nugget of an idea has turned into a varied and rich habitat for wildlife

New woodland has been created by a couple who changed careers to care for the environment. Helen and Christopher Neave have planted 18,000 trees and more than seven acres of wild flowers on rough pasture on the outskirts of Kirk Hammerton between York and Harrogate. Butterflies and dragonflies dart around and the sound of birdsong fills the air while the River Nidd babbles by.

Neither Chris nor Helen has an ecological background but they had a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve when they bought the land. Chris, who founded a laser eye surgery and is now a director of a plastic recycling company, said: ‘I’ve always had an interest in the environment. One of my earliest memories was watching TV programmes about the natural world. Learning about all the different species and the fact we share this place with them enthralled me. I hate the idea that we as a race are stopping them having a place to live because we are constantly encroaching on their space. We had always liked the idea of creating something special and suddenly we found ourselves in a position to be able to buy a bit of land. We had this nugget of an idea and it has quite literally grown and grown.

‘It’s rewarding to think we are providing a habitat to species that might be struggling a little. Planting trees was a shortcut to creating a varied and rich habitat.’

Chris and Helen sought advice from the Woodland Trust. The charity’s partnerships manager Pete Leeson gave guidance on site preparation, wildflower seeding and tree species as well suggesting other sources of help such as the Forestry Commission and Environment Agency.

‘Helen and Chris had seen the Forest of Flowers wildflower project, a 74-acre wildflower woodland we created with a farmer near York and knew that’s what they wanted,’ Pete said.

‘A huge plough was used to turn over up to a metre depth of soil and wildflowers sown for ground cover.’

Of the couple’s 18,000 trees, 2,300 are from the Woodland Trust. Unplanted areas and paths were marked out with stakes and a wildflower mix sown among them. A perfectly circular clearing mapped out the old-fashioned way with a length of string, was created as were sections for picnics and wildlife.

New additions to the site, known as the Sylvan Nature Reserve, and open to the public, include seven ponds and scrapes. The recent heatwave means they are in need of more water but these young wetlands have already attracted frogs, and it is hoped other amphibians and wading birds will follow.

Helen a former consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon, said: ‘It’s amazing how quickly animals and birds move in once you create a home for them. Just listen to the birds – apart from a lone owl they weren’t here before because there was nothing for them. Now you can easily hear five or six species at the same time, and see red kites and buzzards flying overhead.’

Chris and Helen have just bought a second piece of land, Bank Woods, a 111-acre site of ancient woodland and grass pasture near Harrogate, and are working with the Woodland Trust to plant more trees.

They graze sheep borrowed from friends and a small herd of Belted Galloways bought on impulse at market without thinking how they would be able to get them to their new home.Their aim is to reconnect the ancient woodlands to establish a really vibrant mix of habitats. Grazing with small numbers of native breed cattle will help in this process.

Like Kirk Hammerton, Bank Woods is open to the public and is run on a business footing under the name Make It Wild. Chris and Helen also run an online shop specialising in ethical organic products. ‘We are very lucky to have been able to realise our dream of creating something that does so much good for the wildlife around us,’ said Chris. ‘We have learned such a lot, most notably that you can’t change nature; you can only work with it. We hope we’ve done that successfully and are proud to be able to share the results more widely.’

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