Volunteer of the Year nominee: Rachel Thomas – Chair of The Exmoor Society

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As the vote for our Park Protector Awards 2022 Volunteer of the Year gets underway, we spoke to one of the shortlisted nominees Rachel Thomas – Chair of The Exmoor Society – about her work and why National Parks matter to her.

How did you start volunteering in the National Park?

I started volunteering 40 years ago when I became a member of the Exmoor National Park Authority.  Living on the fringes of Exmoor I was enchanted by the beauty of its landscape and wanted both to protect it and, as a geography teacher, help others understand and enjoy it.  In the 1980s, the crisis Exmoor faced was the loss of moorland. It was estimated that up to 1,000 acres a year were vanishing – turning into farmland or into scrub.  Because Exmoor is so small this was having a huge impact on its character and the range of its habitats.  My greatest achievement  I think, was to guide the National Park Authority to measure this loss and take action to prevent it. The other great threat was forestry – large conifer plantations as a cash crop on our steep slopes – that Government funding made immensely attractive. Working with the staff and other members of the Authority we did our best to limit plantations to areas where they would have less impact on the beauty and diversity of the Park.  

Tell us about the volunteering you did in 2021 and what difference you think it’s made…

2021 was such a difficult year  and it is when the restorative power of National Parks was recognised by many who had, perhaps, never appreciated quite what comfort these wild and beautiful places can give.  At the Exmoor Society we decided to open our walks programme  to as many visitors as possible – they were a way of introducing the park to entirely new audiences and giving them the confidence to explore.  

Over the 20 odd years that I have been chair, the Exmoor Society has become famous for its walks and by 2021 we could call on a team of experienced Exmoor historians, naturalists and geographers, all of whom were happy  to lead visitors to the moor’s most fascinating places. It made a huge difference to people, emerging from the isolation of lock down, to be steered safely back into the park.

How does it feel to be nominated and shortlisted for this?

I have to say it came as a total surprise and a slightly embarrassing one  as I am not keen on blowing my own trumpet. But my trustees insisted – and I now feel rather honoured and excited by it.

What would you say to anyone else thinking about volunteering in a National Park?

Volunteering is something I have done all my life –  I want to contribute in whatever way I can to protecting and understand the countryside , in particular Exmoor – and it has been profoundly rewarding.   The voluntary sector makes a difference. You can win small fights and big battles or just help out –  and along the way there is the enjoyment of meeting  like minded people, and sharing the pleasure we all take in the national park.

Why do you think National Parks are important?

National Parks are part of our national identity – they are what is left that is beautiful and naturally bountiful in England.  When we picture the countryside it is these large areas of open space,  the woods, coast, and small upland farms –  like the ones that pattern Exmoor – that we think of.  Technically they are important because they are many different habitats, they can be reservoirs for nature and biodiversity, they can sequester carbon and provide  somewhere  for millions of people to visit, but what really makes them matter is their place in our imagination – their peace and tranquillity, a sense of timelessness, and of nature and people in harmony.

You can cast your vote for Rachel, or any of the other shortlisted nominees for Volunteer of the Year HERE – deadline 30 June 2022.