Robin Mills went to Longburton, near Sherborne, to meet Wren Franklin. This is his story.
“I grew up in the Winterbourne valley, between Winterbourne Whitechurch and Winterbourne Stickland. My father put the roof back on a pair of derelict keeper’s cottages, a mile up a track and on the edge of a wood, in return for the estate letting us live there. There was enough ground to be more or less self-sufficient, and I spent all my time playing in the copses, running wild on the downs—an idyllic childhood. Then about 16 years ago we moved to the Blackmore Vale, to a similarly tumbledown pair of cottages, which, after years living on a building site, is now up together and a lovely home. My parents have always lived according to their principles of environmental concern—living lightly on the Earth—and haven’t seen it as important to spend time striving for things they don’t really need. As a consequence they were always around all the time I was growing up, which was good.
My Mum has worked night shifts in a care home in Dorchester for the last 30-odd years, so when I was growing up, she would sleep while my sister Robyn and I were at school, then by 3.30pm when we came home she’d be awake; and home from work again to get us off to school at 8.00 in the morning. So that worked quite well for us as youngsters. My mother’s father, Peter Lyford, drove the Sturminster Newton mobile library, and through my childhood he would call at the village where I was at school. He just knew everywhere, all the villages, and the people who lived there, especially anyone interested in books.
My father has spent quite a large part of his life restoring antiques and furniture, and had a shop in Dorchester in Colliton Street. He now does small-scale building work for various people, but both my parents for most of their lives have devoted a great deal of time to self-sufficiency, with growing and gardening, and keeping chickens. Dad fixes or makes most things they need, but he spends as much of his spare time as the elements permit paragliding. Originally surfing was his passion, but now he loves to fly, and as a non-enthusiast of team sports the thrill of pitching yourself against the elements has also been quite an inspiration to me. For me it was downhill mountain biking.
I started school at Winterbourne Stickland village school, and finished up at Sturminster Newton High School. Somehow school always got in the way of the things I’d rather be doing, like being outside and having fun, so I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Now I look back on it as a few years of my life that weren’t massively relevant. But there were high points, one of which was being able to do GCSE agriculture on the school farm, just before it was closed. Then, rather blowing in the wind, I went on to sixth form college; but I was able to condense all my free periods into one whole spare day each week, which I spent volunteering with the Dorset County Council Countryside Ranger service, which was much more after my heart. And off the back of that, I went to Kingston Maurward to do an HND in Landscape Conservation, which I found really fun—I began to understand and enjoy learning, and now I was away from the school environment, it was about the natural history obsession that had been such a big part of my childhood. Although university had never been part of the plan, the HND enabled me to look for a university place, because I could now jump further in to a degree course with it. So I got a place at Aberystwyth, which was fantastic from all points of view; the course, the facilities, and the people, and of course the landscape with the sea one side and mountains the other. Looking back I think it was a really formative couple of years for me, and has given me a mental aptitude I wouldn’t have had, had I not had the opportunity to go there.
After university I moved to Exeter and worked for Devon Wildlife Trust as a trainee helping to manage their 40 or 50 diverse sites, which taught me a lot, and helped me get vital practical qualifications like my chainsaw ticket. Conservation work is often considered a lifestyle choice and so much is done by willing and competent volunteers. Every paid job is pursued by hundreds of applicants, and inevitably every applicant has done the “rite of passage” of masses of volunteering. Looking for more work in Dorset, I was offered a day a week as a self-employed contractor for the County Council, who’d first given me volunteering work when I left school. Rapidly that escalated into much more work, conservation land management and forestry work for all sorts of people, and around the same time I started a long-term commitment working in Iceland. That involved half the year in Iceland and half the year in UK, which fitted rather well with the seasonality of nature conservation; winters in the UK doing land management work for NGO’s, farmers and ecological consultants, and summers in Iceland on a remote 1250 hectare farm called Skalanes, on a headland on the East Fiords. The Icelanders I worked for were aiming to create something special with their estate, a worthwhile experience for visitors which had philanthropic aims and contributed to the local community. So for 5 summers from May to September, in 24-hr daylight, I helped to put together their study centre, an unforgettable experience in a wonderful country. The flora is similar to Scotland but without the trees; there are species which are rare in Scotland but grow in abundance in Iceland, and they have huge numbers of birds which migrate there to breed each summer. Conservation in Iceland wasn’t really an issue until relatively recently, because their boom in economic development has all been in the last 50-odd years; and now of course it’s bust. But with a population of only about 300,000, the same as Bristol, and a large national debt, there are development pressures from many directions to exploit their resources, like hydroelectric and geothermal energy, which are a threat to the landscape, with which Icelanders are deeply and passionately connected.
About two years ago, realising I’d like to spend more summer time here in the UK, I got a job with the Lulworth Estate as a seasonal ecological survey worker. The last two summers I’ve been surveying butterflies and moths, identifying wildflowers and surveying woodlands on the magical Purbeck coastal landscape, and writing reports on our findings. Although this last summer’s weather has been disastrous for wildlife, some species like the Chalkhill Blue have done exceptionally. Occasionally fields would shimmer blue with the sheer numbers. We were doing about 20 butterfly transects in a week. With so many hours spent out on the downs I saw some amazing sights like watching young Peregrines learning to hunt—their parents would wound a pigeon and the young would jostle to catch the prey in the air. In winter I carried on with the practical contract work, but the contracts always had a nature conservation motive behind them. Small plantations on commercial farms are sometimes ecologically very interesting, like an oasis; often just a small stand of trees which no-one gives a second thought to.
I’ve been helping a friend called Tim Dunning, a great naturalist, for several years with hedges and coppicing here at Ryewater Nursery, something they’ve been doing for many years now. I had always been really impressed, that a landowner would bother to go to that amount of trouble and expense restoring a coppice. And now they’ve just finished their 24th winter of hazel coppicing, producing walking sticks, thatching spars, and hedge laying materials the coppice once again pays for itself. After I was shown round the whole place one day by a friend who worked here, I felt completely blown away with everything that I saw, from the managed woodland, to the wacky, eco-inspired artworks and habitat creations that surprise you at every turn. I was asked if I’d like to help out, and since then I’ve been working in the formal gardens, with tropical butterflies in greenhouses, and in the vegetable garden. Then, amazingly, I was offered the job of managing the estate, taking the whole project forward. It’s hard to describe how excited I feel about the job. I could never have written this opportunity in any plan I might have had, especially as jobs in Dorset in conservation are probably more hotly contested than anywhere else in the country. And now my partner Poppy and I plan to move to West Dorset, so I’ll be able to cycle to work.
Away from work, I enjoy photography, especially nature and macro photography. I feel the printed image is the real result of a good photograph, so I’m trying to build albums of prints rather than thousands of photos on computer. And Poppy and I both love walking; we have different eyes for the landscape, and I’m looking forward to us walking the Wessex Ridgeway, from Ashmore to Lyme Regis, to celebrate my 30th birthday.”