Thursday 22 February 2024

Meeting Angela Jones, the Guardian of the River Wye

Angela Jones is an environmental campaigner and a guardian of the nature she finds around her. She spends her days above and below the surface of the River Wye, monitoring and protecting the ecosystems there, which she has been doing for an incredible four decades. Our Species Advocacy and Policy Officer Lil McDermaid interviewed her about her passion for nature.

What do you get up to in the environment near you?

What don't I get up to! I'm out 24/7 really so I monitor the aquatic life, I monitor the local otters, I have a bat detector, I sleep on the banks. Everything really, it goes without saying. You do it naturally without even knowing that you do it. I test the water, I train up volunteers to test the water. I have trained hundreds of volunteers over the years and set up many river groups around the country. We have had severe pollution problems in our rivers which is having a devastating effect on all wildlife. The ammonia from intensive poultry units has also had a devastating effect on our ancient woodlands.  I'm just very in tune with everything around me and I'm very connected with the nature.

When did this passion for the environment start?

I get that question all the time and it never started. I have two children and when I gave birth to those children, I vowed always to protect them and I always do the same to my surroundings and environment automatically. I don't see anything else - it's like cleaning your teeth every day. It's something you do and all the campaigning I do nobody can ever knock down because they know there is no ulterior motive to me.

At the Bat Conservation Trust, we obviously tend to gravitate towards bat stories. How would you describe your relationship with your local bat populations?

Absolutely adore them! My favourite thing I do, at least through the winter, even when I was a child I used to do this, I've always slept out on the banks of the river where the bat colonies are. I night swim maybe two/three times a week. I slip into the water and I know where the bats are and I share that beauty with them. I can't think of anything more beautiful and you know where the roosts are and they start skimming around. I do night kayaking too in certain sections and they come swooping through and it's just beautiful. There's one particular part where I sleep out where the caves are and it's just wonderful. It's a delight and your heart warms because you know when people get excited by Christmas lights? I always get excited when I see the bats.

It is great to hear that you are so involved in monitoring your local wildlife, including bats! Have you got any experiences you would like to share from seeing the wildlife in one area change over the course of many years?

Yes so I sleep in caves as well. And in the Wye Valley, there's one particular cave I've been going into and sleeping in for 30 odd years with no lights, really quiet and lie down in a bivvy bag, and we used to have greater horseshoes in the lower chamber and I never went in that chamber.

 Everyone seems to be adventure people now so 40 years ago I was eccentric but now I'm fashionable because of all of these [people] coming into the wild side and I'm happy to share but we need respect.

In this one cave, people are sleeping in the cave but going into the chamber where the horseshoes are and lighting fires so we've lost that whole colony in there. But really it's a circle of life and for us to get the benefits, we should protect the house and wealth of nature; it complements our health and there's a big gap missing in that. I teach them how to respect nature and the environment, to have that enjoyment and that whole circle, and then my business funds test kits for volunteers to test the water. It's people thinking 'I'll do adventure, I'll go out' but they haven't got the connection with the nature there and it's so important that they have that. We can become guardians of the outdoors just by respecting it.

What causes have you spoken up for/campaigned on recently?

The rivers, the salmon and the otters. I was at Defra when the State of Nature report came out and gave them in a letter. BCT were there too so I had a good chat with them. I campaign tirelessly, have spoken at Westminster four times in the last twelve months, given evidence at Westminster, made lots of national programmes and been part of BBC Panorama. There was a court case against the Environment Agency by River Action to hold Defra to account. My fingers are in many pies. Aggression doesn't bring progression but longevity and persistence does.

Do you have any tips for people who are looking to become more involved in speaking up for their local area, especially through volunteering?

I would look to see if there's any Facebook groups out there already set up. Locally here, I'm part of the Save the Swifts group and Save the Otters and I founded Save the River Usk group and I have spent 6 years on the Save the Wye group. Sometimes there's a group already set up but maybe if there isn't one, ping it out on social media.

The other thing I have is an app on my phone called the iNaturalist app so when I see wildlife I try to quickly take a photo so it logs it and can monitor it and put in a big database. When you put your photo in, you can get information on the species and it might be a blade of grass or a butterfly or a bird of prey. You can also see where it has been seen before and a little bit about it. I used to carry a little book with this information and I love the idea of having that. I just came back from the Orkney Islands and I saw basking sharks and it was so nice to identify them and log them with the other people who had seen them as well. You can look back on your data as well and it's simplistic but it feeds the imagination and makes that wildlife so much more interesting because you've got a little bit of information about it.

When you go out, a lot of people walk but they have blinkers on. But drop the blinkers and just absorb where you are, and there's always something fascinating going on. I remember there was a person who used a wheelchair who had a 3ft by 3ft garden path and a micro camera so you don't need a mountain nearby to find nature but it's fascinating how the wildlife adapts.

What has been your favourite experience with bats?

I absolutely adore bats. It's got to be night swimming and getting in the river just before dusk and the flow of the water on your skin and the crispness of it and when the bats come out and start taking the insects. The first thing I look for when it gets to dusk is the amount of insects in a place. Most people think 'oh no, gnats!' but I think 'oh great - there's an excellent food source for bats!'. When the bats all start coming out it's so exciting and they all scoop so close and I have such massive hair I think they're going to get stuck if they get any closer!

What one message would you have for policymakers when it comes to the environment?

If you stripped everybody bare of all they have in life, we all have one mother nature. It's not all about self-gain and greed, it's way, way bigger than that and if we haven't got a good environment and nature around us, we've got nothing.

My careers officer asked what I wanted to do when I left school and I said I wanted a life of seeing nature and adventure. I am a Gemini and dyslexic and I see things black and white so I see things and I do them. I live outdoors all the time, I'm never unwell, and never unhappy apart from when I see awful things happening in the environment.

People always ask me what are you hiding from because I'm always outdoors and always enjoying wildlife. I find that a really strange question because when you truly know yourself and are connected, you have a most wonderful peaceful feeling within yourself. I'm the most connected person you could possibly meet. It's weird how people think it's the norm to not be connected or in tune. I was showing a lady the aquatic life in a river and she was asking if I ever wonder about my safety. Wildlife and nature never give me a problem but it's only tricky when you bring humans into the situation.

To find out more about Angela visit her website here.

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