Saving Planet Earth
Chris Skinner: Maintaining a legacy
Conservation Hero: Chris Skinner
By Chris Skinner
Chris Skinner has lived on High Ash Farm in Caistor St Edmund, near Norwich, all his life and is now opening a path on his farm so everyone can enjoy his land. He tells us about the pivotal moment when he switched from shooting to safeguarding life.
I was born at High Ash Farm and as a baby put out in the garden. Those early days were very important in forming an interest in wildlife. I used to hear the birds and see the farmyard chickens and all the creatures around me before I knew what their names were.
As the years went by - brought up on a traditional Norfolk farm in the 1950s - I became acquainted with everything and learnt also that all the crops were to be eaten and all the animals would go away to be killed.
Being born and death were equal partners right through my childhood and part of that were the shoots that were held at the farm.
Encouraged to kill
In the early days I'd have a catapult and be encouraged to shoot the sparrows and later on in my teenage years I had a small air rifle, later a larger air rifle and then I graduated through to a shotgun. Many happy Saturdays were spent shooting at the farm and that formed the Sunday roast.
It wasn't until I was in my late 20s on a Saturday afternoon that things changed quite dramatically.
We'd had a very successful shoot at the farm - a number of friends and relatives were there and somebody in the background said, 'That was a terrific afternoon's fun, thank you, Chris,' and it was the word fun that started me thinking.
From that moment on it became immoral to me to shoot anything for sport or for fun.
It took a little while to gel in me, but the end result was there was never another shoot at the farm.
It's a wonderful farm - about a square mile of Norfolk countryside, with many areas of woodland all laid out in the 1800s especially for shooting so it's quite a dramatic change.
What I realised I was looking at on that particular Saturday afternoon was around 35 pheasants, a dozen or so partridges, four or five hares, a number of wood pigeons, rabbits.
At that time all those years ago I was quite friendly with Ted Ellis [a Norfolk conservationist] and his knowledge and enthusiasm of nature also came together in me at the same time.
Interest nurtured by Ted Ellis
I spent many afternoons with him and would often write to him. In his articles in the EDP, I was known as the 'friend from Caistor.' Often he'd pop out to the farm and I'm now a lifetime member of the Wheatfen Ted Ellis Naturalist Trust - and that's rather wonderful!
Ted spawned this interest in me and what I had on the farm because everything was grown, killed and eaten.
Sharing the land
But there was another side to it as well - that the farm that I live on and shared my childhood with is also home to all the wildlife here, whether it's plants, insects, flowers, birds or reptiles it's very much part of their home as it is mine.
Now farming is changing I'm learning to accommodate those other creatures instead of doing battle against them.
The Norfolk motto has come true for me - the old Norfolk saying is 'do different' so instead of shooting everything, I'm now trying to encourage things back.
All the gamekeepers at the time when I stopped shooting wagged their fingers at me and said, 'The farm will go to rack and ruin and you'll be overtaken by vermin,' and, in fact, completely the opposite has happened.
The farm is now a thriving sanctuary for wildlife and up until this year it has been a place where food production has taken place on a very large and intensive scale.
The government has now encouraged farmers to look after the countryside more and I've taken up that challenge and more or less the whole farm has been put down to wildlife crops.
Open to everyone
Also, on 21 June, 2007, the farm will open around 5k of public access that's not be open to the public before. I'll be sharing the wildlife here at the farm with the people.
I've learnt a hard and difficult lesson considering the childhood environment that I was brought up in - that's not to discriminate against any plant or creature.
Now the stoats and weasels are just as exciting as the lions on the Serengeti - they are our native carniverous mammals. Stoats and weasels are as welcome as nightingales and robins; crows and rooks are as welcome as blackbirds and thrushes.
I've learnt that the farm is a living place. If you go out from earth maybe in an aeroplane - even up in space - and look at our entire planet you see the whole thing is a living organism. Be it in the sea with all the fish, on the land with all the reptiles and mammals and insects, but the way man is behaving at the moment it needs some attention.
I think we have to go back to how we were centuries ago and live much more in harmony with our environment and that's what I'm trying to do at the farm.
Although man-made items may be fascinating and captivating for people - like St Paul's Cathedral or The Forum or Norwich Cathedral or even the Pyramids - to me they have little relevance because the real heritage, the living heritage, is the one that's most important to me.
That composes of the plants, the wildflowers, the birds and all the creatures and that, I hope, will go on from generation to generation and be a real asset.
That's my task for the remainder of my life: to make this particular part of Norfolk countryside welcome to people who are responsible and will enjoy walking through it.
Chris Skinner opened the 5k of public paths at High Ash Farm in Caistor St Edmund, just south of Norwich, on 21 June, 2007 - go to the High Ash Farm website for more details.
last updated: 19/05/2008 at 12:06