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Jo Pullin on the Churchyard as an Ecological Environment

[Leigh Winsbury] (0:00 – 0:09)

Hello, this is Leigh Winsbury. I’m in the churchyard at St John’s, and I’ve got with me Joanna Pullin, who’s been our environmental coordinator for some time now. Hello Jo.

[Joanna Pullin] (0:10 – 0:10)


[Leigh Winsbury] (0:11 – 0:17)

You’re up here intending to work, got your overalls on today today.. What were you going to be getting into this morning, after we finished?

[Joanna Pullin] (0:17 – 0:28)

Well, I thought I might just do a bit of strimming around the edges of the paths, try and keep it looking neat, and take some of the long grass off the front of the church, ready for Easter, and make it look nice.

[Leigh Winsbury] (0:28 – 0:59)

Lovely job. Thanks. Coming up fast.

We’ve got the pony coming in for Palm Sunday. Couldn’t get a donkey, we’ve got a pony coming this week. So, I’ve known you for a long time now, four or five years, and you’ve always been that person around here who’s pioneered all manner of green projects, working for Devon Wildlife Trust, and the verge thing, and I know they’re both things of the past now, and you’re doing a lot with us in the church here now. But what is your background? What took you to this kind of work? Has this always been your thing?

Tell us about yourself.

[Joanna Pullin] (0:59 – 3:39)

Yeah, okay. I have always been involved with wildlife. As a child, we lived very remotely, and the wildlife was completely our upbringing and surroundings.

But I didn’t really realise that at the time, it was just a way of life, and I had no idea that people didn’t see badgers on a regular basis. Bearing in mind, this was back in the 80s when badgers were quite rare. I didn’t realise that people didn’t walk home from school and see grassnecks running across the grass, or slithering across the grass, and bats in the evening in the garden.

I had no clue until I was a lot older that that was not something people saw on an everyday basis. I can remember when I did my GCSE revision and study leave at home, and the farmer had just cut the hay field below, and there was this family of fox cubs all playing in the field, and that was a massive distraction. You know, I didn’t do much revision, I sat and watched the fox cubs all day.

You know, that was our surroundings, so for me, it was a natural thing to do in life, you know, to follow that passion. Especially as I got older and realised that it wasn’t everyone’s experience, and I felt like people ought to have that experience, because it was so special, and I knew that there was a connection between people and the wildlife, and that that was important, and that people shouldn’t be denied that. I was very lucky to go to a school where we had a fantastic teacher who gave us the opportunity to do environmental science at the age of 14 for a GCSE, and then I was completely hooked from it being an official subject that you could study, you know, it wasn’t something that was just part of life, it was suddenly this career path.

And we were introduced to ecological studies, and woodland structures, and that sort of thing, and surveying water courses, and so from that point onwards I was hooked, you know, I went off to continue my studies in that, and I have followed that right the way through. Yeah, I mean, I just feel blessed that I’ve been able to do that, really. I started obviously in the volunteering sector, because that’s the whole course of life in the environment sector, is you have to do your volunteer time first.

And then I was lucky enough to land some work, and I started my first job, proper job, after my studies and volunteering, in the Allan Valley in mid Wales, as a countryside ranger, with the emphasis on education, and so I was there leading school groups around this absolutely amazing site, and that was it, I was off, my career had started. And then I was lucky to pursue a job in New Zealand for a season when I did some travelling, and then came back to Devon and ended up with Devon Wildlife Trust for various different tasks over the years.

[Leigh Winsbury] (3:40 – 3:43)

Yeah, I’m very conscious that this very stoppy start here is not very reliable, is it?

[Joanna Pullin] (3:43 – 4:15)

Yeah, well a lot of projects have short funding. I mean, the Lottery has basically propped up my career from one job to another. The National Lottery has funded a huge amount of conservation work, but mostly that’s two, three, four, maybe five years if you’re lucky in one post.

I had a lovely job with the Tarker Country Trust on the Life on the Verge project, again, that was two or three years of work, and then the funding finished, so the project finished. So we have to be adaptable and agile in this line of work.

[Leigh Winsbury] (4:15 – 4:16)

Not much job security, is it?

[Joanna Pullin] (4:16 – 4:19)

No, you’re not going to get rich being in conservation.

[Leigh Winsbury] (4:19 – 4:20)

No, sadly.

[Joanna Pullin] (4:20 – 4:29)

But you are going to have a career that you love, and it’s a passion, and I’m lucky to be able to earn money doing something I really love. Not many people can do that.

[Leigh Winsbury] (4:30 – 4:39)

I mean, you must have seen the attitude to the subject change across your time of working in it. Most people are much more aware now than they were 10, 15 years ago, aren’t they?

[Joanna Pullin] (4:39 – 5:07)

Yeah, I think they are. I think there’s always been an underlying knowledge that wildlife is important, but I think people have now realised that there’s a massive squeeze, there’s not much space for it. We’ve disrupted our watercourses, we’ve disrupted our whole cycle, haven’t we?

With the whole climate change shift now, everyone’s really caught on to that. And then, you know, just before the COVID thing, David Attenborough and his plastics in the ocean, you know, there was a massive push around that.

[Leigh Winsbury] (5:07 – 5:10)

We soon forgot about single-use plastic in COVID, didn’t we?

[Joanna Pullin] (5:10 – 5:10)

We did, didn’t we?

[Leigh Winsbury] (5:10 – 5:11)

That was rather sad.

[Joanna Pullin] (5:11 – 5:11)


[Leigh Winsbury] (5:11 – 5:13)

Some masks everywhere.

[Joanna Pullin] (5:13 – 6:00)

Yeah, but I mean, there’s not a day goes by where it’s not being mentioned in one form or another now, and I think people are really conscious. I think there’s also a big shift in the way we manage the land now. People are looking at how they deal with their soils, using sprays and pesticides, that sort of thing.

You know, there is this big cultural shift, and also people aren’t, I think the next generation aren’t going to be so obsessed with manicuring every inch of land. I think there’s going to be a big shift in a trend in the way land looks. And I think that will be a big difference for the next generation, who will accept it and enjoy it and understand it.

I think we’ve had, you know, 50, 60, 70 years of the mechanical mower and wanting to control everything. I think that’s been a bit of a bad place for wildlife.

[Leigh Winsbury] (6:01 – 6:05)

Yeah, I think we’re waking up to that. I love your mini wildflower meadows and people’s gardens.

[Joanna Pullin] (6:05 – 6:07)

Yes, yeah, absolutely phenomenal. That works.

[Leigh Winsbury] (6:09 – 6:32)

So my background before I was a picker was in estate management, and my last post up at the Abbey on Exmoor was very much environmentally focused, and the way we farmed the sheep, for instance, was dominated by our bats and what chemicals we could and couldn’t use and all that kind of thing. So I think you’re right, I think agriculture is catching on. And we can farm well, and still be good to the world about us, can’t we?

[Joanna Pullin] (6:32 – 6:43)

Yeah, we absolutely can. There’s no reason for the two to clash. They need to go hand in hand.

The farmers are our keepers of the land. We need to be working with them. They’re passionate about the land, aren’t they?

[Leigh Winsbury] (6:45 – 6:53)

So we first met properly when we started planning the wildflower project in the churchyard here four years ago.

[Joanna Pullin] (6:53 – 6:54)

I think it was four years ago.

[Leigh Winsbury] (6:54 – 6:58)

I think it’s got to be four years ago now. What do you think of it so far? How’s it gone?

[Joanna Pullin] (6:58 – 7:23)

I think it’s absolutely fantastic. I mean, it’s amazing, isn’t it, when you walk through the churchyard and you see all the daisies and the wildflowers and the butterflies all right next to the park. You don’t have to go hunting for them, they’re just there.

It’s fantastic to be that close to lovely wildflowers and all that comes with that. I think it’s brilliant that people can be that close to it. It’s worked, and it’s worked really well.

[Leigh Winsbury] (7:23 – 7:26)

I was thrilled to see the marbled white butterflies back last year.

[Joanna Pullin] (7:26 – 7:44)

Yeah, I mean, that just shows, doesn’t it, three or four years of managing something slightly differently, and that’s the results that you get. Wildlife is telling us that we’re doing it right. We’ve suddenly got a new species that hasn’t been seen here just because we’ve changed what we do with cutting the grass and the regime around that.

[Leigh Winsbury] (7:45 – 7:47)

And your moth trapping, have you seen any changes?

[Joanna Pullin] (7:48 – 8:12)

Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see. We’re going to run that again this year. It’ll be interesting to see whether we get some more species coming in with our new management.

I’m guessing that it takes a few years, doesn’t it? The marbled white has shown us that. You know, a few years of adjusting.

Well, three, four years, and we’ve already got that changed. So imagine what it’ll be like in another four years, and then when you get to ten years, the differences.

[Leigh Winsbury] (8:13 – 8:15)

I think the slow worms and hedgehogs are up.

[Joanna Pullin] (8:15 – 8:43)

Yeah, definitely hedgehogs. I mean, the first year we sort of knew they were here just from a few hints that they had left behind, but now there’s regular sightings. To be fair, I think the hedgehogs across Hatherleigh town have increased in the last two years.

People have reported a lot more sightings. But obviously, they need somewhere safe to hibernate, and the church is in the middle of the town. Somewhere to feed.

Yeah, that’s right. So I think it has a knock-on effect right the way through the town. The population of hedgehogs, I think, has increased.

[Leigh Winsbury] (8:46 – 8:52)

We’re one year into the similar project at Macon. We had small copper butterflies last year, which I’ve not seen for a long time.

[Joanna Pullin] (8:52 – 8:52)

Oh, that’s great.

[Leigh Winsbury] (8:52 – 9:13)

I was thrilled to see those last year. So it seemed to me at first that you were quite surprised that the church was interested. So I just wondered, I mean, there’s a number of people involved in environmental projects around Hatherleigh, and there was a general sense of surprise that, oh, the church carers didn’t know that.

Do you think we’ve had bad press, or have we generally been bad?

[Joanna Pullin] (9:13 – 9:46)

I think the church fell into the category of mechanical mowers and manicuring. I’ve always known that churchyards are phenomenal places for wildlife if you can change or be a bit more forgiving in the way you manage that area. And I think this was a classic churchyard where it had been manicured for a great number of years by some very strong characters who believed that was what they wanted and that the town wanted.

And we did the consultation to find out what the answer was to that, didn’t we?

[Leigh Winsbury] (9:46 – 9:46)

That was a surprise, wasn’t it?

[Joanna Pullin] (9:46 – 10:05)

It was. It was a lovely day. We found a lot of support.

And I think people did remember that the churchyard had some lovely wildflowers just waiting to be let to grow a little longer. And it worked. The first year, unfortunately, was a little bit ragged because we couldn’t stick to the actual plan with the lockdown.

[Leigh Winsbury] (10:05 – 10:08)

Yeah, we had a few protests because that was COVID, wasn’t it?

[Joanna Pullin] (10:08 – 10:44)

Yeah, but we managed to pull that back. And we’ve agreed that some areas will remain manicured and tidy. And I think that actually benefits because it creates a different structure in the grass.

The fringes of the grass and the transition zones are often the most biodiverse. And also it allows people to access the churchyard and enjoy the wildlife that is in the wildflowers that is available. They’re in the spaces to go along.

And I think people have really got the hang of that now. And they see then in the autumn that we do a big cut. Everyone gets involved.

You know, the hay is made.

[Leigh Winsbury] (10:44 – 10:45)

They’ve been great fun.

[Joanna Pullin] (10:45 – 11:01)

They have been fun. And I think people really enjoy that coming together. So, you know, for many months, the whole area is neat, tidy and cut back.

It’s just for that few months in the summer when we just let wildlife have its turn. I think that really works.

[Leigh Winsbury] (11:02 – 11:05)

And anything special? I think we listed about 70 species, didn’t we?

[Joanna Pullin] (11:05 – 11:09)

We’ve done pretty well, haven’t we? I can’t remember off the top of my head. Yeah, it’s one of those things, isn’t it?

[Leigh Winsbury] (11:09 – 11:10)

Any real surprises that are stuck on it?

[Joanna Pullin] (11:10 – 11:18)

Yeah. Wow. Do you know what?

I always wondered whether we might get the odd orchid popping up here and there because churchyards have been known for that. But we haven’t got signs of that in hours, have we?

[Leigh Winsbury] (11:18 – 11:19)

Not seen any yet, no.

[Joanna Pullin] (11:19 – 11:44)

Very much sort of a dry hay meadow mix up here. But who knows what will come in the future. But the patch with the dominant grass, which is still really good for the moths and the butterflies, it’ll be interesting to see how that develops.

Because the patch with the daisies at the top here is very much established and is pretty good. But that bit, I feel, with the long grass and not so many flowers, is yet to develop.

[Leigh Winsbury] (11:45 – 11:48)

I think that’s needed for so many of the doctor species, isn’t it?

[Joanna Pullin] (11:48 – 11:55)

Yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s still phenomenal for wildlife, but it’ll be interesting to see how the grass changes and whether more flowers come into that.

[Leigh Winsbury] (11:57 – 12:10)

So in the great scheme of things, we’ve got two acre churchyard here, which is bigger than average. And half of it is given over to this project, half is kept tidy, roughly. So one acre, does that make a lot of difference in the great scheme?

[Joanna Pullin] (12:10 – 13:13)

I think it makes a huge difference. So we ran a wildflower project and we encouraged people to leave one metre in their garden for wildlife. So if you scale up all those one metres and add them all together, the impact of that is huge.

Now, if we add in the churchyard to that mix, and then you think about how it’s all connected, the churchyard is really the gateway to the countryside, right into the centre of our town. We’re blessed to have this resource in the middle of our town. It connects us to the countryside.

See, bats and birds don’t just stay in the churchyard, they fly along the hedgerows, they navigate. The church will be a huge navigation point for the bats and for the birds that all feed across this area. And then if we connect that up with all our lovely gardens that people are trying to manage for wildlife now as well, you start to get a huge area.

And that makes a big difference. So, yeah, it’s about that connectivity. And, you know, you just have to look out through our churchyard and how we’re connected to the wider landscape.

It has a big impact.

[Leigh Winsbury] (13:13 – 13:18)

I believe you’re right. I’ve certainly seen more wondering about my garden in the last couple of years than we have in the first came.

[Joanna Pullin] (13:18 – 13:19)

Comes back to the hedgehogs, doesn’t it?

[Leigh Winsbury] (13:19 – 13:21)

It does, the hedgehogs are everywhere now.

[Joanna Pullin] (13:21 – 13:28)

Yeah, I mean, they can roam for a couple of kilometres just in one night. You know, that’s that’s quite a big part of Hatherleigh, isn’t it, if they went for a walk around town.

[Leigh Winsbury] (13:30 – 13:45)

So I’m thinking of five churches, not just here. There’s an almost 600 churchyards and churches, parish churches in Devon, as well as all the others. What would you say to anybody looking after one of those who’s thinking about doing something like this, but is coming up against opposition?

[Joanna Pullin] (13:46 – 14:33)

Yeah, well, come and have a look at Hatherleigh Churchyard and see how they’ve done it. I mean, it is doable and you don’t have to do the whole lot, do you? You can start with a metre, two metres, five metres, a corner.

Don’t try and do too much that you can’t then manage. You know, if you’re trying to make hay and you haven’t got an easy way of cutting it, then make sure you’ve only left an area that’s a manageable size. You know, don’t go for the whole lot.

And then you can do it in various ways. You could just do a spring flower selection so then you can cut from June onwards if people are worried that it’s going to look too messy for too long. You can do what we do here in Hatherleigh and leave it right till the autumn and then take the hay crop off.

Just think about the logistics and what you can manage and talk to your community first. That’s what we did.

[Leigh Winsbury] (14:34 – 14:42)

I think that’s the trick, isn’t it? I think we expect opposition. We think everybody wants it looking like a bowl in green and then you find actually people are pretty keen.

[Joanna Pullin] (14:43 – 15:32)

And I think also there’s some press around wildflowers where if you’re going to create this meadow it’s going to instantly look like one of these cornflower blues and poppy reds and things. And that’s not what you’re going to get on a Devon piece of grassland. You’ve got to be able to enjoy the long grasses and how beautiful they are as well as the odd flowers that pop up between.

I mean we are quite lucky that we have got a massive stock of oxeye daisies which really prop it all up in Hatherleigh. But you can do a year or two first and see what comes and then you can look to introduce some species. And if you collect seeds from your local area or come to Hatherleigh Churchyard and pick a few seeds in the right time you can make sure you’ve got the appropriate species for your local area.

You’ve got to look what’s around. I mean you can’t go off and buy a wildflower seed pack that’s not appropriate for your habitat.

[Leigh Winsbury] (15:32 – 15:41)

That’s going to look strange. Because this is an idea, there’s a unique reservoir of seed in the soil from the past as well.

[Joanna Pullin] (15:41 – 16:14)

Yeah well this is why you never know what’s going to happen. When we chose to do this project we actively decided not to introduce anything. We literally said we are going to let the grass grow long and see what appears.

I mean we had an inkling because we can see the leaf of some of the wildflowers that do survive, the perennials. We knew they were there. But you don’t know until you let it grow what’s going to appear.

And to be fair we still don’t know, we’ve only done this three or four years now. We’ve still got a few more years to go before we know exactly what the end result will be and how it will adjust.

[Leigh Winsbury] (16:15 – 16:17)

So you don’t think we need to introduce anything?

[Joanna Pullin] (16:17 – 16:36)

I don’t think we need to introduce anything. And I think that’s part of the beauty, be patient, let it evolve. Habitats don’t evolve overnight.

You can’t just pick your fingers and expect it to look like some magazine picture. I think it’s nice to watch it evolve, it’s part of the journey isn’t it? It’s part of the experience.

[Leigh Winsbury] (16:36 – 16:38)

It’s exciting isn’t it, seeing what comes up each year.

[Joanna Pullin] (16:38 – 16:41)

I mean our marbled whites did that for us last year didn’t they?

[Leigh Winsbury] (16:41 – 16:47)

Absolutely, made my day that day. So we had the school up last year didn’t we?

[Joanna Pullin] (16:47 – 16:48)

That was fun.

[Leigh Winsbury] (16:49 – 16:49)

How did that go?

[Joanna Pullin] (16:50 – 17:09)

That was great fun. I mean we were blessed with a sunny day. The kids loved it.

I think if you put kids and nature together you’ve got the most phenomenal combination haven’t you? I mean my passion is definitely about educating and passing on knowledge. But the other great thing is if you want to know what’s in your church yard, get a group of kids to come and do some bug hunting because they will find things.

[Leigh Winsbury] (17:09 – 17:09)

They all find it.

[Joanna Pullin] (17:10 – 17:54)

Yeah, they’re so much better at finding things than adults. And yeah, they came round, each class did their turn didn’t they? And they all had a go at bug hunting and I think every child found something if not multiple things.

We named some of them, some we didn’t know what they were called, some we looked up afterwards, some we took photos of. But what we did realise is that there was a big variety of different species and the children really got that message. And they loved it.

We ran the same activity as part of Hatherleigh Festival three weeks later and nearly every child came back out again with their parents. They were determined weren’t they to show their mums and dads and they literally just spent all day bug hunting around the church with their mums and dads. It was just such fun, yeah.

[Leigh Winsbury] (17:54 – 17:59)

Yeah, that was a surprise for me was that all the same kids were back doing the same thing and loving it.

[Joanna Pullin] (17:59 – 18:16)

And what was lovely was that it wasn’t in the constraints of the school day so they could actually enjoy the activity. They could teach their parents how to do it, they could run around with the nets and just have that freedom that children often don’t get these days, looking for wildlife. I mean, that’s just heavenly isn’t it?

It’s brilliant.

[Leigh Winsbury] (18:17 – 18:25)

So we’re recording this today for posterity, it’s gone on our website. What would you want to say to those listening to this in the future?

[Joanna Pullin] (18:26 – 19:39)

Yeah, I think we will see a future with a different trend. We touched on this earlier didn’t we? I think the trend of manicured, beautiful, bowling green type grass is changing.

I mean that is literally just because of the mechanical mowers wasn’t it? In church I would never have looked all manicured in history gone by when you go beyond the mechanical mower. And I think the next trend will be to have some sort of compromise with those too.

You know, leaving some spaces for wildlife and having some nice neat spaces for the access and to make it look like it’s kept. And I think the future will look something along those lines. I hope people continue with what we started here.

I hope that we’ll see an increase in biodiversity again. I mean, Hatherley is blessed with its wildlife. We’re very lucky in Devon and especially around here.

We have a huge amount of wildlife, but actually we need to realise that not everyone has that. And that we need to be the keepers of that and make sure that we keep what we’ve got. So, you know, we need to look around and go, actually this is phenomenal what we’ve got here.

[Leigh Winsbury] (19:39 – 19:43)

You can forget, you nip up to the Midlands or somewhere and you can forget how incredible it is here.

[Joanna Pullin] (19:43 – 20:25)

And to be fair you don’t have to go far from Hatherley to realise that the fields are a desert of green grass. They’re not a nice mix of biodiverse, species rich. Our hedgerows are a blessing in Devon because they actually contain a lot of wildlife and they help us maintain what we’ve got.

But the churchyard is just going to be this sanctuary really. And I think if we can all connect to that with little bits of garden and hedge and just keep those bits of wildlife that we have got safe and build on that, then the value of this is phenomenal. And what we’ve done hopefully will be in a minute of time.

[Leigh Winsbury] (20:27 – 20:33)

And lastly, what about yourself? What does the future hold for you? You’re doing a bit for us at the moment, bits for all over the place.

What’s your plans?

[Joanna Pullin] (20:33 – 21:25)

Doing lots of things, yeah. So I’d really like to try and keep the momentum going for the work we do across Hatherley. We’re looking after a couple of grass verges that have got some orchids on, wildflower species.

We’ve just set up a sustainable Hatherley group which is building and has got a huge amount of momentum. So it would be nice to branch out into some other bits that affect wildlife, maybe not directly linked with the biodiversity action on the ground. But for me, I love doing the work on the ground.

I love being out in Lake Clare. I love working with people. I love spreading the news and the messages about wildlife and showing people things.

So that’s where my passion is and that’s where my history and my work history is. The two merge very much and I can’t see that I’ll be doing much different to that for the next few years. Probably till the day I drop.

But yeah, that’s what we plan to do.

[Leigh Winsbury] (21:25 – 21:34)

Joanna Pullin, thank you very much for everything you’ve done for us here. Your input and your wisdom and advice and thank you for being willing to talk to us today.

[Joanna Pullin] (21:34 – 21:40)

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be part of it and it’s a pleasure that I can actually be useful and helpful and people enjoy what they see.

[Leigh Winsbury] (21:40 – 21:41)


[Joanna Pullin] (21:42 – 21:42)

Thank you.