Words by Dan Warden
We talk conservation, community and what life is like for a National Trust ranger with Mike Simmonds, Lead Ranger on the north Cornwall coast.
Trevose Head - National Trust Images - Ross Hoddinott
Everyone welcome – this has become something of a motto for the National Trust, and when you consider the thousands of volunteers it works with, and its 5.6 million members (as of last year), it certainly seems to ring true. But it doesn’t just refer to people; much of the work with which the National Trust is involved champions the protection and future-proofing of some of our most beloved flora and fauna, something I think it’s fair to say has never been higher on the global agenda.
Mike Simmonds is a National Trust Lead Ranger for North Cornwall, responsible for Trust-owned land along the 35 mile stretch of coast from Tintagel to Holywell Bay. His ‘patch’ also includes Rough Tor on Bodmin Moor. “It’s a dead man’s shoes sort of job,” he laughs when I ask what he enjoys about the role, “because once you’re in, you kind of stick with it. You get passionate about it and you don’t want anyone else to have your job!”
Mike Simmonds - National Trust Images - Ross Hoddinott
Mike “started life”, as he puts it, by “going to art college and becoming a graphic designer.” Only six or seven years later did he start doing voluntary work in the Chilterns, where, working with other volunteers and rangers, did he think to himself: “I want some of that!” The rest, as they say, is history; in 1994 he undertook a High National Diploma in Countryside Management and during his middle year, got to know the National Trust by taking a work placement here in Cornwall. A few years later he returned to the Duchy and became an Assistant Warden in Boscastle and has been with the Trust ever since. “In 2010, there was a bit of a rebranding of the roles, so we got called rangers instead of wardens.” At the same time, Mike tells us, he was appointed to his current role.
Left: Image by Mike Simmonds | Right: Goldfinches at Pentire - National Trust Images - Nick Upton
Gazing across to Trevose from Constantine Bay - John Miller
Left: Peregrine falcon at Trevose Head - National Trust Images - Nick Upton | Right: Mike Simmonds
The Rumps at Pentire, Mike’s favourite spot - National Trust Images - Ross Hoddinott
Painted lady butterfly - Mike Simmonds
So what does Mike’s day to day look like? “I head up a small team of rangers based at Polzeath,” which lies roughly in the middle of the patch. “It’s an extremely varied job, literally every day is different.” Mike’s team spend most days doing what he calls “practical estate management”, which encapsulates anything from managing the land for wildlife and the natural habitats there, to looking after and maintaining the South West Coast Path. I ask Mike if he spends much time out and about. “I still keep my hand in,” he assures me, “but I’m more of a facilitator these days.” He admits: “I do get bogged down in emails and admin a little bit,” but it’s no surprise, really. Mike spends a lot of his time administrating agri-environment schemes on the land he’s responsible for. “Sometimes that’s securing grant money for projects; I also do a lot of work with farm tenants, liaising with them on a regular basis and steering them in the right direction in terms of what we’d like to see happen on the land.”
Barra Nose Tintagel - Mike Simmonds
A lot of these schemes are worked on in partnership with other organisations, including the RSPB and Natural England, and aim to sustain the biodiversity that, in recent years, has been in decline throughout the UK. For instance, Mike elaborates: “We have a long history of working with the RSPB on management for species like chough and corn buntings.” A ground-nester that relies on spring cereals and grassland left to grow into late summer, in the last 50 years, corn buntings have seen a decline in numbers of around 86%. “There is a small Cornish stronghold in north Cornwall,” Mike tells us, namely the Newquay to Padstow area, however “despite everyone’s best efforts, the species is still struggling.” And when you consider that 41% of all British species are in decline since 1970, the vitality of such partnerships between organisations like the RSPB and the National Trust becomes all the more clear.
One project that is just getting off the ground is a collaboration between local farmers, Natural England, FWAG South West (Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group) and other organisations including the Trust and the RSPB. North Cornwall is host to one of the government’s trial ELM schemes (Environmental Land Management). This is the proposed new, post-Brexit, agri-environment support set to be happening across the UK, but which is first being piloted in a few select areas. “It’s a really big push to get everyone working together,” Mike explains, “bringing on board all the interested farmers, encouraging them to adopt more wildlife friendly farming, and trying to establish a nature recovery network.” Thankfully, Mike tells us that there is a large community of farmers who are already up for the task, and who have already been helping with these kinds of projects for many years.
Image courtesy of National Trust Images - Ross Hoddinott
The Trust have their own wider strategy, called ‘Land, Outdoors and Nature’. “We have set ourselves ambitious nationwide targets to restore natural ecosystems and wildlife on our properties,”Mike reveals. “We are all playing our part in this by working to create more priority habitats and encourage more sustainable and more wildlife friendly farming and land management.” This is referred to as ‘High Nature Status’, something the Trust is aiming to achieve on exactly half of all its land by 2025.
But it isn’t just the local farmers who continue to lend a helping hand towards these ambitious goals, and in fact, it’s something you too can easily contribute towards. As you will already know, volunteers are the lifeblood of organisations like the National Trust, and Mike explains how “we regularly get asked by people ‘how can we come and get involved?’” There are all sorts of things you can do as a volunteer and at other times to help, from one-off surveying and beach cleans, to taking part in ‘scrub bashing’ days. There’s also a packed calendar of events taking place throughout the year for those hoping to experience Cornwall in a different light. These include: Bat Nights at Pentire Head, where you’ll see and hear greater horseshoe bats emerge from the old mine workings there; butterfly walks at Lundy Bay; even stargazing at Bedruthan, which the National Trust hosts alongside Kernow Astronomers. Simply by attending one of these events and absorbing the information presented to you, you’re helping the National Trust in its mission to raise awareness, and that in itself is an invaluable contribution.
For those hoping to become more regularly involved, Mike tells us: “Volunteers from the community are so important to our cause, some of whom help us week in, week out with a wide variety of estate and habitat management tasks.” He tells us about the ground-nesting skylarks, which are a highlight of spring and summer at places such as Cubert Common and Glebe Cliff with their aerial singing displays. With the help of voluntary dog-walking rangers, Mike and his team are able pass that information onto the general public, raising awareness of the skylarks’ presence and thereby minimising the risks of disturbance.
A microcosm of Cornish bio-diversity - Mike Simmonds
And this is precisely what the National Trust stands for. It’s not about the work of one organisation; it’s about the awareness that organisation can raise in the community, by engaging everyone.
The National Trust stands for collaboration – between those in the know, and those who wish to know more – and at present, one of its fundamental goals is to secure a future, by collaboration, for our precious landscapes and the biodiversity they support.
If you would like to know more, enquiries about events and volunteering in north Cornwall can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org