Cathy Harvey is one of the founders of the Allington Hillbillies and now the group’s chairperson. The Hillbillies – who have just celebrated the 10th anniversary of their founding – are a volunteer group who carry out conservation work on Allington Hill, including Cooper’s Field and Cooper’s Wood.
The Bridge: What do you think sparked your interest in nature and wildlife?
Cathy Harvey: My father was a contract farmer but when I was nine he left farming because he was disillusioned with the way it was going, particularly all the chemical fertilisers and weedkillers being used on the land. The feeling of being in tune with nature has come down through my family, and now I want to give something back to our local wildlife.
TB: How did the Allington Hillbillies come into being?
CH: I live near the hill, and I know a few people who share my interest in wildlife. In January 2011 we asked the Woodland Trust, which owns the hill, to run a volunteer day teaching conservation skills such as hedge laying, dead hedging and coppicing. There was lots of interest, and about 30 people came along. Afterwards we decided to take it from there and form an ‘official’ group with a proper structure and constitution, which allows us to fundraise and apply for grants. Of that original group of 30 volunteers, 15 are still involved and several are on the committee.
TB: How have things moved on since those early days?
CH: We’re now supported by Allington Parish Council, who provide our insurance and annual allowance. We’ve been very fortunate in securing grants for a lot of our projects and we’re financially independent. Most of our work is focused on the 14-acre Cooper’s Wood and Cooper’s Field site alongside Hospital Lane, and the parish council leases this area from the Woodland Trust on our behalf. The Coopers were a local farming family who sold the land to the Woodland Trust in 2004, and they’re still involved.
TB: What kind of projects do your volunteers get involved in?
HC: Our activities really fall into two categories: we look after the land, and we hold community events there. We volunteer for work with the Woodland Trust on the hill as well as running our own sessions on Cooper’s Wood and Field, to do whatever needs doing.
We have a five-year plan for Cooper’s Wood. About half the trees here are ash, and sadly they’ve been affected by ash dieback, so we’re felling sections, clearing the area and replanting with a more diverse selection of species. We use Toby Hoad and his horses for logging and moving the timber. It’s an environmentally friendly way of doing this as the horses don’t damage the woodland floor. They also attract a lot of interest from passers by!
Within the wood we’ve created Cooper’s Circle as a space for people to meet and enjoy being outside in the peace and quiet of nature. All sorts of activities take place here: storytelling, outdoor cooking, dog training workshops and parties. Allington doesn’t really have a community focus – there’s only one pub now and the shop has closed – but we do have Cooper’s Circle.
TB: Has the pandemic affected your activities much?
CH: Actually not that much, because it’s all outdoors. After the initial total lockdown, our volunteer sessions restarted and have carried on ever since, although of course numbers have been down a bit as some people have been shielding. In 2021 we managed to get some new providers on board to run events in Cooper’s Circle including ‘Nurtured by Nature’ for parents and under-fours, and outdoor arts sessions for families with slightly older children.
Before Covid we had more free community events – a mini festival, music events, barbecues, that kind of thing – and we did a beacon for the Queen’s diamond jubilee. We’re now thinking what we can do for her Platinum Jubilee!
The Allington Hillbillies run two-hour volunteer sessions every Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday, meeting at 10am by the main gate on Hospital Lane. Anyone interested can just turn up – please wear stout shoes and gloves. Jobs are allocated based on volunteers’ experience and interests and seasonal requirements. Sessions go down to one a week from mid-March through the summer because of nesting birds.
There’s more information on their website (www.allingtonhillbillies.org.uk) and Facebook page.