Meet chair of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, David Bullock

PUBLISHED: 11:33 07 April 2020 | UPDATED: 11:33 07 April 2020

Dr David Bullock, at home in Horsley (photo: Andrew Higgins, Thousand Word Media)

Dr David Bullock, at home in Horsley (photo: Andrew Higgins, Thousand Word Media)

© Thousand Word Media 2020

After retiring as the National Trust’s head of nature conservation last year, David Bullock, now chair of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, has never been busier

Dr David Bullock is chair of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust [GWT], the county’s vibrant and forward-thinking nature conservation charity. As well as managing 60 nature reserves, GWT has a whole host of initiatives that work in partnership with the natural world: from Building with Nature, encouraging developers to include wildlife-friendly features; to its youth board, injecting next-generation ideas and views into the heart of strategy and solutions.

David was a teenager himself when he experienced his own epiphany moment. During a year out from his zoology degree at Edinburgh, he joined a research party on the Hawaiian Islands.

“It was my first realisation of the destructive power of non-native species,” he says. “On islands, you get the greatest insight into how biodiversity can be lost.”

These ravaged islands were robbed of native wildlife over centuries, beginning with the original Hawaiians killing birds for feathers, progressing through to Captain Cook and his men introducing goats and (accidentally) rats; followed by caged birds, imported from South East Asia, spreading malaria.

“If you go to the Hawaiian Islands these days, the chances are you won’t see any native wildlife – it’s all exotic.”

Trying to protect native species, however, can lead to controversial decisions. As a nature conservation advisor with the National Trust, David and the team had to weather vociferous public criticism when they eliminated rats from Lundy in the early 2000s. “It was either that or allow the Manx Shearwater, a burrowing seabird, to disappear from the island through predation. In Britain, we have 90 percent of the breeding population on the planet.” Protestors held mock funerals and demonstrations for the rats – but, since the project ended, the number of the breeding seabirds has tripled.

David retired as the National Trust’s head of nature conservation in May last year at the age of 65. “And I’ve never been busier!” he says.

He lives with his wife, ecologist and writer Jude Smith.

Dr David Bullock, in Horsley Community Orchard field, near his home in the village (photo: Andrew Higgins, Thousand Word Media)Dr David Bullock, in Horsley Community Orchard field, near his home in the village (photo: Andrew Higgins, Thousand Word Media)

Where do you live and why?

In Horsley, in the Stroud Valleys – a thriving local community, full of wildlife and great views. I started life in central Lancashire, Rossendale, until I was four; then to Manchester, Sale, Chorlton. Quite urban, but we were right on the edge of the Mersey so there was a lot of farmland that went on to become country parks. I have an early memory of being pinned against a five-bar gate by a goat, and the farmer’s daughter saying, “Give over Daisy!” The funny thing is, I’ve worked a lot with goats since!

What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?

Stroud Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning; our allotment; birdwatching at Slimbridge, and – depending on the time of year – a visit to a GWT reserve. I’m fortunate that I can walk into a wood and, even if I were struck blind tomorrow, I’d be able to recognise birds through calls. It took a lot of work when I was younger, but I just had to know.

I’d round all that off with some music practice. I’m in a little band – Celtic Conspiracy – playing Celtic rhythms spliced with jazz and pop.

How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?

For 28 years – we moved here when I took up my job with the National Trust. On our first trip over, the flowers in the Cotswolds blew our minds. We had to stop to look at the roadside and take in the colour, the structure: the big woolly thistle; salad burnet; knapweed. Roadside verges are pretty important in all sorts of ways – they’re very good wildlife corridors, as well.

Dr David Bullock, at home in Horsley (photo: Andrew Higgins, Thousand Word Media)Dr David Bullock, at home in Horsley (photo: Andrew Higgins, Thousand Word Media)

If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?

Horsley, in the Stroud Valleys! But I’d use the money to do two main things: to connect nature with nature, because so much of it is fragmented; and to connect people with nature. If it’s done properly, that’s going to be what sustains it.

A good example is the current stooshi about the A417 at the Air Balloon. We want to see better connections for people and wildlife across the new road: a land-bridge, accommodating a diversity of habitats, between Barrow Wake to the south and Crickley Hill to the north [nature reserves managed by GWT].

I think – I hope – we’ll get there, in the end. If you’re an environmentalist, you’ve got to be an optimist!

Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?

In a floodplain. If you put infrastructure on floodplains, you lose the ability of that land to have the healthy, alluvial soils that soak up floodwaters. We shouldn’t mess with them.

Ashmead's Kernal apples, a Gloucestershire variety on the table at Dr David Bullock's at home in Horsley (photo: Andrew Higgins, Thousand Word Media)Ashmead's Kernal apples, a Gloucestershire variety on the table at Dr David Bullock's at home in Horsley (photo: Andrew Higgins, Thousand Word Media)

Where’s the best pub in the area?

The [Prince] Albert, Rodborough – best patrons of live music and purveyors of good beer for a long way.

And the best place to eat?

Falafel Mama in Stroud.

What would you do for a special occasion?

Fall asleep on Daneway Banks, listening to the buzz of the insects, and wake up to a dark starry sky.

What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?

The landscape of the Cotswold Edge; flowers on the commons.

Dr David Bullock, at home in Horsley (photo: Andrew Higgins, Thousand Word Media)Dr David Bullock, at home in Horsley (photo: Andrew Higgins, Thousand Word Media)

... and the worst?

Too many cars on too many small roads.

Which shop could you not live without?

Horsley Village Shop (where I volunteer). It really comes into its own when it snows! Next would come Day’s Cottage apples, and Colin and Lucy’s Corinium Ales, at the farmers’ markets in Stroud and Cirencester respectively.

What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?

Buildings are an important part of nature conservation. Right now, all the lesser horseshoe bats in Gloucestershire are underground, maybe in caves, mostly in mines; in summer, they’ll be in the very warm roof voids of huge houses – they’re quite aristocratic, bats. Think about house martins; think about the great crested newts using stone walls to hibernate.

What is a person from the Cotswolds called?

Depends: a blow-in, a Cotswold top, a Stroudie. I’m more concerned about the invasive species we’re having to deal with. Cotswold streams and rivers be should full of our native white-clawed crayfish. Unfortunately, through crayfish farming, the bigger, more predatory American signal crayfish has taken over – and they carry a disease to which our native crayfish are very vulnerable. That’s much more of a worry than, for example, Himalayan balsam or Japanese knotweed. We can deal with those.

What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?

Hobbs Bread, double Gloucester cheese and an Ashmead’s Kernel apple.

What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?

Cowslips and early purple orchids on Minchinhampton Common. Cattle on the commons, and the commoning system, are absolutely critical to the health of those flower-rich limestone grasslands; the problem is, they can’t keep up with the invasion of some of the trees, many of which (Turkey oak, holm oak, strawberry tree, cotoneaster) are non-native. Cutting down some of the trees on the common is vital. People then say, ‘What about the songbirds?’ So you have to make decisions that are unpopular sometimes. There used to be lots of ‘Whiteway Banks’ in the Cotswolds which really were quite white because the Jurassic limestone was exposed. It doesn’t look as nice, but the spectacular limestone flowers and butterflies flourished when there were lots of open spaces.

What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?

Horsley. I would refer the reader to our Neighbourhood Plan, which is strong on connectivity and habitat. It uses as an icon the green woodpecker, which drums on trees, nests in holes in old trees, and feeds on ants in grassland. We’ve got limestone grasslands here, and some very old trees as well: as long as we have that mosaic, there won’t be a day when you won’t hear a green woodpecker.

Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds

Jurassic limestone, snowdrops and beautiful churches.

What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?

The ‘disused’: stone mines, railway and canal tunnels. Full of character, bats, cave spiders, and the industrial remains of our not-so-distant times.

What would you never do in the Cotswolds?

Ask for a pint of cider whose name is anything to do with either a bird that drums on trees, or archery.

Starter homes or executive properties?

Either, as long as they are not in a floodplain, and come with a community orchard. No matter how big your house, or how rich you are, you still need to connect with nature. Orchards are a really good way of providing wildlife, and we’ve more than 200 varieties of apple in Gloucestershire alone.

What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?

The Welsh have a word – cynefin - that takes two pages of closely-worded English text to describe, but it means ‘sense of belonging’. If you were to do the meningitis walk [the fundraising Meningitis Now ‘Five Valleys Walk’ each September], I think that’s about people in the Stroud Valleys beating the bounds of their cynefin.

If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?

A small piece of tufa – the soft rock formed when calcium-rich water runs through mosses which are then petrified. Not chipped off, but a stray piece.

What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?

If you live on the top, a road-bike would be OK, but the wind and fast cars could slow you down; if you live in the valleys and use the cycle tracks that were once rail-lines a hybrid should be OK, but the dogs, walkers and the LED lights of cyclists coming at you could slow you down, bite you or blind you; if you live above the valley bottoms but below the top, you may need an electric bike to show to your friends from time to time… but keep it in the garage and take the bus.

And which book should they read?

Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile [by Alice Jolly]: the fictional life and very hard times of a servant woman growing up and old in the Stroud Valleys in the 19th century.

Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?

Wassail! As a Wassail Butler – a role I have undertaken – you lead the assembly of people to make lots of noise and scare away the bad spirits in the trees. You libate the King Tree with some of last year’s cider, whilst performing an oration. You put toast on a tree – perhaps with a bit of cider on it – for the robins, who also help get rid of bad spirits. And the final thing, which is very Gloucestershire: the oldest person present gives three gifts to the youngest. I give a branch of yew for long life; hazelnuts for knowledge and wisdom; and a little pot of live snowdrops for love and light at a really dark time of year. There are quite a few babies around here with snowdrops in their gardens!

If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?

Daneway Banks: sitting still, watching the wildlife that cannot watch me.

To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?

The infamous big black cat said to live on this side of the river, between the Stroud Valleys and Cirencester; (there is reported to be another on the other side). People want there to be something to be out there and to let it be – a metaphor for wild.

The Cotswolds – aspic or asphalt?

I’m influenced by social geographers at the University of Exeter who talk about a concept of curated decay: you can’t preserve things for ever but you can let things change in a moderated way. You might end up with, in a building sense, a romantic ruin; veteran trees might look scruffy but they’re increasing their wildlife potential exponentially. You look after things as they change over long lives: you curate the decay.

Which attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?

Accommodating change.

With whom would you most like to have a cider?

My wife, Jude. But can it be perry from Day’s Cottage?

For more on the work of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, visit gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk

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