Wildwood Trust boss giving nature a second chance
Peter Smith looking to re-introduce British animals
European Beaver in their living quarters at Wildwood nr Canterbury, Kent, 14th January 2013.
WHEN you think of the stereotypical nature enthusiast with a passion for protecting endangered species and safeguarding the natural environment, a former boxer, turned nightclub bouncer, charity chief and revolutionary economist, is unlikely to be the vision which springs to mind.
Yet Peter Smith is the unorthodox man at the helm of the Wildwood Trust - a charity dedicated to the conservation and re-introduction of British wildlife. It also runs what is rapidly becoming one of the country’s most popular wildlife parks.
The idea of the park is not only to educate, explained Mr Smith, but to take visitors back to a time when the UK was rich in animal species; from wolves to wild horses and from lynx to lizards.
A wolf walks stealthily through the woods at Wildwood nr Canterbury, Kent, 14th January 2013.
Set in Wealden Forest between Canterbury and Herne Bay, the Wildwood Trust began life as a small nature reserve almost 30 years ago, created by a former director of tree supplier English Woodlands, Terry Stnaford.
It then began gathering a small collection of animals, and, as Brambles, established a reputation for itself as a small scale zoo. But 1999, and following some sizeable investment, it became the Wildwood Discovery Centre.
It was not all plain sailing, however, and within three years, the business model was failing to break even and with the Support of local MP Sir Roger Gale the decision was taken to become a charity - and the Wildwood Trust was born.
Kent businessman Ken West and Peter Smith, a conservation scientist with a proven track record of charity management, stepped forward to turn the park into a charity. Today it is one of the most vibrant in the county - welcoming a steady flow of visitors, school parties and establishing itself as a vocal exponent of the benefits of a flourishing British wildlife scene.
From some 30,000 visitors in 2002 it now attracts 130,000. “Ken West is a self made man and a very good businessman. He was a trustee of Kent Wildlife Trust and while I was working there we had this mad idea to take over Wildwood.
“My background is as a very successful charity manager. I had worked for a number of charities and turned them around. “At the Kent Wildlife trust, I helped to put the systems in place to quadruple their income, and at Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust I helped to treble their income while I was there.” The Wildwood charity has since grown into a 40-acre site producing turnover that has risen from £160,000-per-year to £1.6million.
But building the park was never about money. Explains the 43-year-old: “It came out of a wish to do charitable things and to save wildlife, not to build a zoo. “We wanted to obtain the skills for managing re-introduction projects and large scale habitat restoration using animals like beavers and wild horses.” Mr Smith, who is about to become a father for the second time, was one of the key players in the successful project to re-introduce the European beaver to a piece of marshland known as Ham Fen, near Sandwich, during the 2000s. The beavers were placed there to help manage the land by keeping the waterways clear, coppicing trees and controlling vegetation, more than 100 years since they were hunted to the brink of extinction.
But, as Mr Smith explained, these projects cannot take place without the healthy running of the park. He said: “We derive our money from people visiting us. We have become very popular because we try to show off the animals in a nice way and we have some really good charitable objectives. “We do such good work that people like to be associated with it. They join as members and that is where we get our money. It’s our membership that is key, not our gate receipts.” And the membership is by no means expensive. For £7 a month, a family can gain limitless access to the park which normally costs just a few pence under £10 for a single adult entry.
When he first arrived, the self-proclaimed “nerd” set about acquiring old computers and re-building them into modern machines able to run a membership database “at no cost to the charity”. And it is this entrepreneurial streak that Mr Smith continues to follow, introducing the sponsorship, or adoption if you will, of certain Wildwood animals and installing a children’s education and fun centre.
He said: “Wildwood has grown from a solid understanding of business and the will to educate people and to get them involved in helping other wildlife organisations.” Under Mr Smith, the Wildwood Trust team has already outlined two prospective sites for new parks to continue their battle to save British nature. “We have continued to grow steadily over the years. And the plan is to get more land and create more Wildwoods elsewhere,” he explains The ecologist was also one of the first to complete an the MSc conservation biology course at the University of Kent’s successful Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE).
He has amassed even more degrees since, achieving an MBA (Master of Business Administration) as well as an MA qualification in marketing, DICE is well known for the scientific research of its alumni into nature and conservation and the impact of humanity on the wild. Originally from Northumberland, Mr Smith moved to Kent to study at the DICE. His career path then kept him here. He said: “I wanted to work with wildlife and I initially studied biochemistry at university in Birmingham to learn about nature and how it works. I always thought I was going to have a scientific career and was fascinated by evolutionary biology. But when I got to the point of becoming a scientist, I didn’t want all the politics that came with it. “Science is an incredibly arcane world and incredibly nepotistic in some ways. And I just wanted to save nature.
“So when the conservation biology course at Canterbury opened, I jumped. It was a brand new science, there was no way to study nature conservation science in that detail anywhere else. That was the first place to do it so it was all very avant garde at the time.”
But his academic path was not easy as unfortunately his coal mining father had lost his job, he was left with a cash flow problems during his academic career. He said: “I went to the library and studied the ways I could possibly get money to go there (DICE). My parents weren't rich and my father was going through the miners’ strike and was made unemployed while I was at university. “So have also payed my way by becoming a bouncer. Fortunately my other talent was that I was actually an amateur boxer and I had a second degree black belt in taekwondo.” So he would spend his day researching how to save animals and nature while at night he was throwing drunken revellers out of the local student union bar. “But I was a good bouncer because I didn't beat people up and I wasn't malicious. I didn’t have an axe to grind, but I wouldn't say that for all the bouncers I worked with.”
Back in the current day and Wildwood is relentless in its green approach to sustainability. Mr Smith has introduced solar panels on to the main buildings to produce electricity and heat water for the showers and toilet blocks. And they have also erected a 20kw wind turbine on site to generate juice for the needs of the 50 permanent employees and the canteen. But it is the animals at the park that get the best treatment.
There are more than 200 animals, native to Britain, set in the ancient woodland park – many of which are critically endangered. “Look at the European bison,” he reflects. “They came so close to extinction. There were less than 100 left in the world. But just after the First World War a few scientists had the foresight to save that beautiful animal. It has walked the Earth for millions of years and played a very important function and we nearly snuffed it out. There are now 3,500 of them in nature reserves and we are honoured to have three males here.”
The park displays species that most will recognise as native to Britain such as the badger or the fox, but Mr Smith is keen to show the public exactly what would have been roaming our shores less than 1,000 years ago – with one very ferocious attraction due for arrival soon. “We have been working for a number of years to bring the European brown bear to Wildwood, and it looks like it is going to happen in the near future.”
The re-introduction programmes are a top priority with Mr Smith. He is backing a group of scientists looking to re-populate Scottish highlands with the lynx, for example. He explains: “There is no reason not introduce the lynx, because they are not a danger to humans. “They are a danger to sheep, but we shouldn’t be farming these upland areas.” Mr Smith explained there are areas in the Scottish forests where there are too many deer, partly because keepers are breeding them to be hunted as game and partly because there are now no natural carnivores left in Britain. He adds: “Lynx disperse deer. It’s not that they kill many; it’s just that they move them on. That makes the grazing pressure light enough for the re-growth of all those lovely Caledonian wooded habitats that we used to have. So re-introducing the lynx would be a good thing.” Admitting not everyone agrees with his theory, he firmly believes he has found the best way to the end the disappearance of the countryside.
He explains: “The biggest problem in nature conservation is land ownership. How can you get hold of land for nature conservation? You can’t, it costs a fortune. And the more money you raise for conservation, guess what happens, the price of the land goes up. “No matter how much money nature conservations earn, or how much money the Government sets aside for nature conservation, it isn’t saving wildlife.”
To halt the decline, Mr Smith said a classic economist philosophy worked out by the likes of pioneeering economists Adam Smith and Henry George, and even promoted by Winston Churchill, should be deployed. “We need a system where we have a land value tax,” he explains, “so we tax people’s land rather than their income; that would solve the problem easily and wouldn’t hurt the economy.
“Taxing all of nature’s assets, like oil, coal and the ability to pollute will mean that hurting nature is expensive because it’s taxed. “It would mean we would not use the nature we don’t need to. People will develop industries to use less water, less land, less coal, less oil and it would work perfectly. “The way things are now there will be no land left. There is so much money to be made by owning land, everybody wants a piece of it and no one wants to leave it alone.”
Mr Smith also has an axe to grind with Government subsidising farmers to bring rough areas of land into food production while disregarding the impact on British wildlife. He said: “Farmers get paid billions of pounds a year in subsidies to use marginal land that is really of no economic worth. “I am talking about upland sheep farming, rocky areas, river valleys and flood plains that we shouldn’t be farming anyway. We actually spend more money to get food off of it, than its worth. It’s not like we are starving to death, so we don’t need the land. “If we bring about 30 per cent of the marginal land out of production, we could restore all of the nature we need and have beautiful habitats and eco-systems.” Having worked at the wildlife trusts of Scotland, Gloucestershire and Kent,
Mr Smith considers himself perfectly placed to give expert opinion on both wildlife and the state of the country’s nature conservation. He is a regular contributor to popular BBC programmes like Countryfile and Springwatch and is no stranger to providing expert comment on both local and national issues. He said: “Why do the BBC like me? It’s not because I am particularly interesting or tell good stories, it’s because I am utterly, 100 per cent, dedicated to protecting wildlife and humanity. And it is good to get the exposure for Wildwood.” While there is no denying
Mr Smith is extremely confident, he is not brash or overbearing - insisting that informing me his IQ is an impressive 180 is not showing off, merely underlining that he should be listened to. Peter states his intelligence is from the autistic spectrum and he believes his determined and unrelenting nature has driven him to research and discover the past and future of British wildlife in microscopic detail.
He said: “I have little emotional intelligence, so I am not very good at keeping people happy all the time, but I am good at what I do. “I don’t particularly want to be rebel, but I just don’t care about other people’s opinions. I like facts and figures. My life journey has been about how to protect nature and I have learned the skills needed to do so.”
His talks to visitors in the park, and their internet reviews, are proof enough that his enthusiasm is infectious, and as he will tell you, the numbers of people that keep coming back don’t lie. Mr Smith’s push to get the European beaver, the British red squirrel and Scottish wildcat show his determination to give native animals a second chance on these shores, while Wildwood’s captive breeding and release programme for the British water vole has been described as “species saving”.
But Mr Smith says there is no limits to what the Wildwood Trust can achieve. He added: “Nature needs animals to shape it. And if you don’t have animals shaping nature, the plants don’t grow in the right way and you have much less insects, birds, fungus, plants, flowers and bees. This is what is known as 'Rewilding'.
“Everything depends on a complexity of nature. Britain needs big herbivores munching, beavers creating wetlands and wild horses managing grass areas - all sorts of complex, wild eco-systems.
And that’s why we wanted to create Wildwood, because other wildlife trusts were a little too conservative for those grand visions. But I am not.”