Brian and Sue Walker thought they had it all – the well-paid office job for the electricity board and a purpose-built bungalow with fitted kitchen, a rarity in 1976. The future looked prosperous for this newly married couple.
Yet within months, Brian had given up life in the office and suburbia and taken up a new job with the Forestry Commission, working as its first recreation ranger in Hamsterley Forest, County Durham.
Brian’s wage dropped to the equivalent of an agricultural labourer and the bungalow was exchanged for a semi-derelict farmhouse in the Durham dales. “They had to build a bathroom for us as the people before didn’t even have running water,” says Brian, laughing. The move would change family life and consume Brian for the rest of his working life.
Scarborough-born Brian is wildlife officer for North Yorkshire, a job he retires from next month. He always had a lively interest in wildlife, which he credits to his parents.
“They were both country people. My dad’s idea for a day out was getting close to nature, exploring rock pools and the like. It was always an adventure and I developed an inquisitive nature and was always taught to respect the planet. Since then I have been plagued with a responsibility for preserving it.”
Brian was the first recreation ranger for the Forestry Commission. He describes it as a “jack of all trades” job – guiding school visits, labouring in the forests, making signs, felling trees. It was, he said, an education.
“It gave me the knowledge of forest operation and I could talk to children about how to fell a tree properly because I had done it,” he says.
“My job was to help people get the most out of a day in the woods. That sounded a lot better than pushing a pen to me. I also began to do a lot more stuff with wildlife and we had a bird box scheme to see how species like redstarts and pied flycatcher used the forest.”
Brian returned to North Yorkshire in 1994 to become chief recreation ranger and five years later he landed his present role and dream job. During this time, he has achieved much in terms of conservation, including the return of birds of prey to Dalby, which he describes as ‘heart warming’. Species such as the goshawk, once persecuted to extinction in Britain, found a safe haven, along with birds such as the common buzzard – once very uncommon indeed.
“One of the high points of my career happened this year when I had the privilege to ring a goshawk chick, going to the nest with two scientists and handling this completely wild bird, the most fearsome predator in the air,” he says.
The nightjar has also recovered from critically low numbers in the 1970s, and this summer more than 500 pairs were spotted in North Yorkshire’s woods, thanks to habitat management.
Elsewhere, adders are doing well in the woods and bats are more than holding their own, even apparently ‘speaking’ in a Yorkshire accent.
“John Altringham from Leeds University, an expert and enthusiast, was studying pipistrelles on the North York Moors and discovered there were two species present as they ‘called’ differently – one in Yorkshire, and one in Lancashire.
“And nightjars do the same. Gordon Simpson, one of my greatest mentors, was in Greece and didn’t recognise the call of the nightjar there – they must have called in a Greek accent, whereas birds nesting round here call in a Yorkshire accent.”
Alan has been responsible for many important projects, including the on-going restoration of 9,000-year-old May Moss, near Fylingdales, where 170,000 conifers have been felled to boost sphagnum moss and rare insects.
He has also attempted to find firm proof that the pine marten still lives in the western fringe of the North York Moors. There have been numerous reported sightings. However, baited tubes to collect hair samples for DNA analysis, cameras, pine marten boxes and scat hunts have so far all drawn a blank.
“We are talking about Britain’s second rarest carnivore after the Scottish wild cat, so although I’m disappointed that the pine marten has eluded me, I’m not altogether surprised,” says Brian, who remains convinced they are lurking in the woods, so the search goes on.
His remit has also included the management of scheduled ancient monuments on Forestry Commission land – there are nearly 80 in Dalby Forest alone – such as Bronze Age burial mounds, prehistoric boundary ditches and rabbit warrens.
Brian has seen many changes over the years (“Who would have thought we’d hold pop concerts in the forest?”), but one of the most pleasing is that attitudes towards the importance of forests have changed dramatically for the better.
Brian has been proud to work for the Forestry Commission, and is now looking forward to getting back to his roots and taking pleasure from his retirement in the field, spending days enjoying botany or ringing birds.
“The past 34 years have given me a very privileged life,” says Brian. “I’ve been able to bring up my two daughters in the countryside, not in a cocooned urban atmosphere.
“From the wildlife side, not only is it fantastic to see charismatic animals at close quarters, but also the sense of discovery that you’re the first person to see a plant for 100 years. And working with such great people, those unsung heroes such as academic scientists and naturalists who are passionate about nature, but also being able to educate schoolchildren.”
When asked for his finest moment in 34 years among the trees, he has no hesitation. “I was sat on a hill in Hamsterley Forest watching a bird of prey nest,” he says.
“A large bird appeared in the distance, which at first I ignored. But when it came closer it dawned on me – it was a golden eagle!
“I watched transfixed as this majestic bird flew down the valley with the sun glinting on its back. Goodness knows where it came from or where it was going. But that fabulous moment has stayed with me ever since.”