Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's CEO on protecting nature in the region and an inspiring trip to Antarctica

Rachael Bice became CEO of the Yorkshrie Wildlife Trust six months before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Laura Reid finds out about her work and vision, amid a challenging year.

Rachael Bice, chief executive of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

It was in part thanks to a trip to the earth’s southernmost continent that Rachael Bice found herself moving 300 miles north to begin a new life - and job - in Yorkshire.

Since September last year, eight months after she embarked on a leadership and expedition programme in Antarctica, she has held the post of Chief Executive of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, a charity dedicated to conserving, protecting and restoring wildlife and wild places across the region.

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Rachael found herself experiencing the ‘majesty’ of the coldest, windiest and driest continent on the planet with women from 26 countries around the world. Each had successfully applied to the Homeward Bound scheme, a global initiative which aims to heighten the influence and impact of women in making decisions that shape the earth’s future.

Rachael at the trust's Potteric Carr reserve in Doncaster.

On board the scheme’s voyage to the Antarctic, the focus for Rachael and her fellow participants was developing their leadership skills; learning about the structural barriers that many women have to face in their professions and how those can be countered; and understanding more about the environmental crisis and how to play a role in increasing sustainability.

“One of the best things about it was that we were working hard in various seminars then suddenly someone would shout ‘whale’ and the whole thing would stop,” she says.

“There would be a whale - mostly humpback whales although we did see a fantastic pod of orca where the baby was sleeping and the adults were swimming around them. Those moments where we were completely interrupted by beautiful whales just going about their business were ones of complete majesty. It was one of the most enormous privileges of my life to have been there.”

For Rachael, then working for Cornwall Council in a role focused on environmental issues, the Homeward Bound programme sparked a desire for a new challenge. Established for more than 70 years, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust offered just that.

“That experience [in Antarctica] I think helped catalyse the idea that sometimes you have to back yourself for jobs or opportunities that you wouldn’t necessarily think you would get,” she reflects. “When I saw this role [at the trust] come up, I thought it would be an amazing job, but then I thought oh I’m not sure I’d be able to do that. I had a conversation with myself and said this is one of those moments to try and go for the opportunity.”

And so it was she headed north to Yorkshire. Tucked away close to the Howardian Hills in North Yorkshire, the village of Alne near Easingwold has become her home.

“Yorkshire’s attraction was that the environments are dramatic and fantastic, there are different types of risks here, there are a much more diverse set of communities living in and with these environments, the territory is huge and there’s a really strong culture,” she says.

“I’m getting to know it slower than I was thinking because I’ve spent most of the past six months sat in my spare room. But it’s beautiful, it’s diverse.. It’s a bold and vibrant place to be and I think it has a more important role to play in the future in the Northern agenda than it maybe holds at the moment.”

Born in Cornwall, Rachael has felt a strong connection to animals and the outdoors from early in her life. Fond of riding as a child, she wanted to work with horses but took her undergraduate degree in land economy.

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It wasn’t, however, where her heart lay. After spending one university holiday working with horses against the backdrop of Loch Tay in Scotland, she went onto work for equine vets, stud farms and at a further education college looking after sports horses.

From there, Rachael worked for more than a decade with the local authority in Cornwall, her first role in the council’s waste department. “In a way that was my first exposure to some of the bigger intricacies of the environmental movement, learning what it is that’s happening that means that we’re creating this awful catastrophe,” she says.

“Working in waste was really interesting because you realise that the very individual decisions we make about consuming particular items, and what we do with the remnants of those, can make a huge difference. There is no ‘away’ - you can’t throw anything away.”

She shifted then to various roles, latterly leading teams under the banner of 'environmental growth', looking at how Cornwall's nature and heritage would be valued and cared for into the future. “We have to do more than protect what we’ve got because it’s become so depleted,” she says.

Over time, Rachael, who has also completed a postgraduate degree in anthrozoology, looking at how humans perceive, engage, compete and co-exist with animals, says she started to become more immersed in the environment and nature, seeing everything around her as living.

“In some ways, I think more people have experienced that through Covid, because we’ve slowed down,” she reflects. “We don’t move so fast through the landscape anymore. We start to be able to see who else is living around us that may not be human.

“There’s a passion, empathy and intrigue that goes with that and then you start to realise that humans aren’t always helping that much...We’re making decisions that make it much harder for other species to survive.”

“My experience is once people get an awareness and a connection, it does change the way they make decisions,” she adds. “You don’t need so much Government policy to be mandating that change - people choose because they care.”

Much of Rachael’s first year at the helm of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has, of course, been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic. One of the biggest challenges since the initial lockdown restrictions eased has been managing additional footfall at the trust’s reserves.

“For some people their relationship with nature has changed [during the pandemic] in quite a gentle getting to know each other way,” Rachael reflects. “For others, in response to being ‘unlocked’ they suddenly found themselves in open spaces that they perceived I think to be empty, just there for them to consume. We’ve had some experiences where the reserves have been misused, for example with big gatherings.

“At times, there’s been an influx of people who haven’t necessarily understood that a nature reserve is not the same as a park, an open space designed for people to do human recreational activities. A nature reserve is supposed to be a quiet space to go and observe and be close to nature which is quite different.

“We’ve been trying to educate people to understand why the spaces are the way they are and why particular behaviours are necessary such as being quiet, keeping a dog on a lead or not using a particular path that a bird is breeding on. We’re endeavouring to say it’s great you’ve come outside and found our space, now we’d like to invite you to experience it in the way we do and find the joy within that.”

Bringing people closer to nature is one of the trust’s key aims and part of Rachael’s vision for her time as CEO. She hopes with the trust’s team to be able to empower people to understand more about their environment and its wildlife and encourage them to take more action to support it.

Hand in hand, she hopes to amplify the trust’s impact, bringing about strategic change to make Yorkshire more sustainable by working with local leaders and other organisations.

“Yorkshire still has quite a lot of wildlife in it [and wild spaces] because it’s a big place so I think people can think it’s okay,” she says. “But actually it has lost an awful lot.

“I want the trust to continue helping people to be aware of that and understand what they can do to change that. [The other focus is] making changes at a strategic level so that policies of local authorities and investment bodies operating in Yorkshire mean that decisions are being made and money is being spent in ways that support wildlife rather than defeating it.”

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust was established as a charity in 1946. The trust works across Yorkshire, with conservation projects over land and sea, hills, coast and valleys and towns and cities. Its vision is for a Yorkshire abundant in wildlife, with more people having a genuine and meaningful connection with nature.

The lockdown meant that the trust, which looks after over 100 nature reserves right across the region and is involved in hundreds of other conservation-related projects, had to close centres and pause its work on sites.

“We have on the whole managed to catch up with our reserves work now,” CEO Rachael Bice says. “There shouldn’t be too big a negative impact in terms of the outcomes for wildlife.”

For more information, visit www.ywt.org.uk

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