Encouraging tomorrow’s wildlife champions

David Green meets the head of the Suffolk Naturalists’ Society

JOAN Hardingham believes in nurturing the “spark” of interest in the natural world shown by youngsters. A former biology teacher, her own fascination for wildlife began at an early age and she wants to play her part in helping to maintain and develop the enthusiasm shown by today’s youth. “Almost all the people currently active in natural history research had their interest stirred when they were young. Few people come to it in later life and it is important to encourage youngsters in their formative years,” says Joan, who manages to work full-time growing and selling fruit and vegetables on her family’s small farm at Creeting St Mary and also serves as chairman of the Suffolk Naturalists’ Society – known as Suffolk Nats – and acts as one of the volunteer leaders of the RSPB’s Young Explorer groups at Minsmere.

She and her husband, Nick, came to live in Suffolk in 1981 after three years in Belgium, when Nick was working for a chemical company. His parents hail from the west of the county and, although he and Joan looked all over southern England in their search for a small farm they ultimately found what they were looking for in Suffolk, only 15 miles from Nick’s former home.

At Alder Carr Farm, Creeting, close to Needham Market, they have 20 acres of productive land and a farm shop – a successful business which also occupies two of the couple’s daughters and their partners.

It started in the era when “pick your own” was the trend and developed into a farm shop and venue for a monthly farmers’ market. There are 16 regular staff but the workforce soars to 30 when fruit and vegetables are harvested.

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Joan and Nick are also guardians of a large area of wildlife habitat, including 10 acres of alder carr – wet woodland which supports a range of creatures and plants.

“We have all kinds of wildlife here, including bats, but nothing particularly rare,” says Joan.

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The farm has the atmosphere of an old mixed holding. Cattle mooch in an open barn while hens peck around the yard for insects. Pygmy goats (family pets) graze in a nearby yard, while a short walk away into woodland are three bee hives. Joan is keeper of the bees and sells the honey in the farm shop.

She is currently serving her second four-year stint as chairman of Suffolk Nats, which was formed in 1929 to promote the study of natural history and geology in the county.

It currently has about 600 members, many of whom help maintain up-to-date information about species – by carrying out studies and providing data for the Suffolk Biological Records Office at Ipswich Museum, a database which now has more than one million records of wildlife sightings dating back to Victorian times.

Research results are also published in the society’s magazine, White Admiral, while a few members – among the society’s 23 official “recorders” – produce books on their particular field of research.

“In the early days the society was dominated by clergymen and other gentleman naturalists, some of whom built up large collections of specimens. Now the membership includes people from all walks of life.

“People’s interest in wildlife has exploded since pictures of the natural world began to appear on television and especially during recent years when photography has undergone a technological revolution,” Joan says.

She is keen to promote the availability of the group’s bursaries for independent researchers, individuals or groups. There are substantial amounts available for well-organised research.

Joan is hoping that a “wildlife corridor” initiative can be launched in Suffolk this year or next: to encourage the creation and management of networks along which species – often isolated and vulnerable – can move, partly in response to changing climatic conditions.

“Changes to the natural world have been so great and so threatening over the past 30 years as a result of a range of factors, including farm intensification and housing development. We need to get together with other organisations and use reliable local information about the impact on wildlife and organise local action,” she says.

Suffolk Nats is not a campaigning organisation – it devotes its efforts to monitoring work in order to pinpoint population trends, the reasons for them and possible actions.

Joan was disappointed that a “young Nats” group – started some years ago – did not survive and flourish. “Suffolk Nats didn’t really have a junior arm and I felt there were children out there who needed a bit of nurturing in regard to their natural history interests during those difficult teenage years. I eventually ran out of steam and there was no-one willing to take over,” she explains.

However, she is keen to promote the society’s fifth drawing and photographic competition, which encourages youngsters to look closely at some of the millions of insects and other invertebrate creatures which live in gardens, parks, fields and woodlands.

It is open to all school-age children, not just Suffolk Nats members; and members of other organisations, including the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s junior Watch groups, are eligible.

The competition involves looking closely at any insect or other invertebrate and drawing it.

“We get a terrific response – hundreds of entries from all over Suffolk – and it is quite amazing what the kids turn out. It is important they draw the actual creatures, not copy out book illustrations. We can tell when the latter has been done,” Joan says.

A factsheet setting out guidelines for the competition, and the various classes and prizes, is available from SNS, care of Ipswich Museum, High Street, Ipswich.

Joan has three grown-up daughters and two grandchildren, Isaac and Alice – who will soon, she hopes, be old enough to pursue their own interest in the natural world around them.

Further information about Suffolk Nats can be obtained by logging on to www.sns.org.uk


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