In this blogpost the National Trust’s Head Ranger for the East Devon Coast and Countryside, Pete Blyth, talks about the “brown moo cows” that inspired him to help others forge a lifetime connection with special places.
Why would a grown man be moved to tears by a herd of cows? Because they are special cows, obviously. Okay so slightly more information might be needed here…
My lifetime connection to the countryside and the Trust started aged about three, when my mum used to drive me past the Trust’s Hughenden manor on the way to go shopping in High Wycombe. I don’t remember exactly when it started but on one of these trips we were lucky enough to see the herd of cows crossing the road from the Trust’s parkland to the farm to be milked. That was it, I was transfixed, and my poor mum had to make sure we timed all future trips to see “the brown moo cows, crossing.” If we missed them it was a major catastrophe.
The life changing event for me came when aged about four, mum took me to Hughenden for a visit and I was privileged to meet “the man who looks after the brown moo cows.” This member of Trust staff took the time out of his busy day to explain to four-year-old me why the Trust had cows, and how important they were in managing the estate.
I already knew about the countryside, but that was the moment when I realised that it didn’t just happen, but was managed and looked after – and that was what I was going to do. While my friends all wanted to be pop stars, or engine drivers, or fighter pilots, I was going to be “the man who looks after the brown moo cows.”
Fast forward 36 years, I am driving past Hughenden and there they are. The next thing I know I have tears of joy streaming down my face while I incoherently explain to my bemused colleague that it’s “the brown moo cows” and even better still, “they are crossing the road!”
As part of our work to get people outdoors and closer to nature, my team is supporting a local business “Ecoexplorers” in running a pre-school forest school playgroup in our woods at Salcombe Hill, East Devon. We’ve busted out a story time circle for them from the undergrowth, and furnished it with logs and branches from our woodland operations. Every Wednesday morning the site rings to the sounds of young children getting the chance to build dens, toast marshmallows over open fires, sing songs, make leaf sculptures and collages, and generally have fun doing all the things that I did as a child, but which many kids today wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to do.
A few weeks back I was at the site just as the session was ending and a little boy came up to me and proudly said, “Look I’ve got a stick.” I agreed that yes indeed he had, and a very fine stick it was indeed. Pointing at the trees around the site he asked, “How do the big sticks become little sticks?” Seeing how important this was to him I put aside my woodland grant scheme paperwork and spent maybe 15 minutes explaining in simple terms how we manage the site, why we cut trees down and plant new ones, and how the work we are doing now will mean that there’ll be a woodland for him to enjoy with his kids when he reaches my age.
I met his mother again more recently and she told me that he hasn’t stopped talking about our encounter and how he wants to “help make big sticks in the future.” This was the moment when I realised that I’ve achieved my dream. I may not have actually become “the man who looks after the brown moo cows” (though as a member of the Trust family I am proud to count him as a colleague), but instead I’ve become “the man who looks after the place with the big sticks.” Now its my responsibility to ensure that local kids have a chance to forge their lifetime connection with our special places, and if our sites and experiences have as much meaning for even some of them as the “brown moo cows” have had for me then it will have been a success.