International Women’s Day 2024: Sally Gillard, Volunteer Coordinator, Hinksey Heights Fen Restoration project

8th March 2024

The theme of International Women’s Day 2024 in ‘Inspire Inclusion’ and today we are celebrating one of Freshwater Habitats Trust’s inspiring volunteers. Sally Gillard is the Volunteer Coordinator for the Hinksey Heights Fen Restoration project.

Freshwater Habitats Trust Fen Conservation Officer Paola Perez explains why she is such an inspiring volunteer: “Sally is Volunteer Coordinator for the Hinksey Heights Fen Restoration project. Sally has been helping the fen restoration since it began and is effectively the heart behind the work party. Despite being super busy, she always has time to attend the work parties and she is our main point of contact with the rest of volunteers, sending the monthly emails around with information and the risk assessments – and on top of that, she always brings biscuits!”

We ask Sally what inspired her to support Freshwater Habitats Trust and our work to restore fens by managing and rewetting them.

What made you become interested in nature and the outdoors?

I have been interested in nature from a very early age.  My father worked for East African Airways so I spent the first few years of my life growing up in East Africa.  Our final move before returning to England was to a house in Nairobi and I remember finding a chameleon in the garden, which I called Michelle because, if it turned out to be a male, I could call it Michael!  I had heard that they changed colour but no matter how many times I put Michelle onto the quarry-tiled veranda, she still stayed a beautiful green.

We were often taken to the Game Park and I remember seeing crowned cranes and thinking how wonderful they were and I have lots of memories of times we spent with friends and our shared wildlife experiences.

When we returned to the UK, most of my nature watching was with my Dad – going mushrooming and seeing my first Yaffle or Green Woodpecker, seeing Kestrels along the motorway, a bullfinch in the local park, spider orchids in Dorset, a chaffinch on her nest – quite by chance, and later going bird ringing as a teenager.

I also had a wonderful primary school teacher when we lived in Frome, Somerset, who took groups of us out on school trips and I have very fond memories of these including one when we walked through a meadow and she showed us Shepherd’s Purse, which I found so enchanting as a little girl.

Sally Gillard fen volunteer scything

- Sally Gillard fen volunteer scything. Image credit Kathy Warden.

How did you hear about Freshwater Habitats Trust and become interested in our work?

I eventually ended up in Oxfordshire and through volunteering with my local Green Gym heard about some water testing being carried out at the BBOWT reserve at Parsonage Moor with Freshwater Habitats Trust and that’s when I first found out about their work.

I joined Abingdon Green Gym almost 13 years ago. Tasks vary from site to site and season to season and can involve litter picking, woodchip laying for paths, cutting back vegetation for paths, coppicing, removing invasive non-native species such as Himalayan Balsam, Small Balsam, laurel and bamboo, planting native trees and wildflower bulbs and sowing native wildflower seeds.  I was able to attend a leader training course and became one of the leaders.

Five people raking vegetation. Trees and cloudy sky behind.

- Volunteers raking at Hinksey Heights fen, Oxford.

We have also become involved in fen restoration at a few sites. Oxfordshire has a number of calcareous (or alkaline) fens: a very rare habitat. I met ecologist Judy Webb and Camilla Lambrick and they, along with consultant ecologist, Rod d’Ayala, had seen the potential for the fen restoration project at Hinksey Heights.  A volunteer group was formed about six years ago and we started by clearing scrub, whilst scythers cut the tall, thick reed growth. I cut my teeth on the fen by raking and raking and raking again!  I was lucky enough to be offered a place on a scything course and I learnt how to scythe with Clive Leeke.  Thereafter, instead of raking, I got to practice my new-found skill!  Camilla initially coordinated the volunteer group at Hinksey Heights Fen but then asked if I could take that on – which I did.

Freshwater Habitats Trust now manages this through the Oxfordshire Fens Project and we still meet once a month, on the second Sunday.  We’re always keen to welcome new volunteers to the group.

Grass-of-Parnassus from Hinksey Heights Fen

- Grass-of-Parnassus from Hinksey Heights Fen. Sally Gillard

What type of volunteering do you do? Why do you enjoy it?

I have met a wonderful group of people through Green Gym and other volunteering groups, as I also volunteer at Parsonage Moor with BBOWT.  In addition, I am on the Committee for the Abingdon Naturalists Society and in recent years have been involved with the Abingdon Swift Project and have led swift walks during Swift Awareness Week. I also volunteer with my local toad patrol and have carried out waterways surveys for Bat Conservation Trust.

In recent years, I have volunteered for the ATOM Festival, an annual event held in Abingdon celebrating all things science, mainly by being at the front desk at the various talks.

I think if anyone wishes to help nature they should sign up with a volunteer group – it is a super way to be in the outdoors with like-minded people and you make great friends.

Fen and Floodplain Conservation Officers joining a scything work party aimed at clearing the tall reeds currently outcompeting a population of the endangered Fen Violet.

- Scything work party aimed at clearing the tall reeds currently outcompeting a population of the endangered Fen Violet.

Which women inspire you?

I’ve learnt so much along the way and have been inspired by so many people – from Miss Pearne (my primary school teacher) and more recently through my volunteering, Judy Webb, Camilla Lambrick, Angela Julian and Kathy Warden for their knowledge and enthusiasm.

And, of course, I am inspired by the lovely people at Freshwater Habitats Trust: Paola Perez, Lizzie Every and Ellie MacDonald.

Erica McAlister is truly inspirational for her work on flies.  I also greatly admire Gillian BurkeLucy CookeJane GoodallJoy Adamson, Alice Roberts, Margaret Atwood and Lucy Lapwing for their work, being great communicators and for inspiring confidence, and especially my wonderful teacher, Miss Pearne.

Find out more about the Oxfordshire Fens Project and becoming a volunteer.

Hinksey Heights Big Nature Day. Women and girls drawing plants.

- Hinksey Heights Big Nature Day. Nature inspiring women and girls alike.