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How Make It Wild Are Creating New Wild Spaces Across Yorkshire

tree saplings
September 2023
Reading time 5 Minutes

Make It Wild is all about creating new wild spaces across North Yorkshire, be it more trees, more meadows or more ponds

Now with nine sites across the county, more than 60,000 trees planted and nominated for the BBC Make a Difference Awards, we caught up with founder Helen Neave to find out more.

Helen has had a varied career, from being a consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon to studying a Masters in Education. But all the while, no matter what her job, she found herself worrying about nature and the changes she could see around her. As a result, in 2010 she and her husband Chris decided to do something to help, buying some land with the intention of giving it back to nature and preventing it from ever being developed. ‘It was just a family project. We planted 20,000 trees and we were basically doing it all ourselves with the help of our teenage children and friends,’ explains Helen.

‘Then there was one particular day, when all the trees we’d planted were six or seven years old, and we could actually see the results of what we’d set out to do. It was a rough grazing field when we started which had no interesting wildlife at all, it was literally grass, thistle and nettles, but on this particular day we’d been doing some work, and sat down to have lunch and we said gosh, we’ve actually done what we set out to do. We’ve brought nature back to this field.

‘By then the trees were over our heads, you could see birds nesting in them, the air was full of buzzing insects, there were deer and hare, and we often saw birds of prey. It was really in that moment that the whole idea for Make It Wild came to fruition and we thought perhaps we’ve now got the time and headspace to turn this into a business that will mean that we can do this again and again. We can find a way of raising the money to keep rolling this forward and giving more land back to nature.’

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That first field was on the edge of the village of Kirk Hammerton near York, but now, as Make It Wild celebrates its fifth anniversary, that family hobby has become a growing business with nine sites across North Yorkshire and partner sites being added around the UK. ‘The concept of Make It Wild is that we help businesses and individuals to help nature by planting trees, rewilding, and through new habitat creation,’ says Helen. 'We’ve got nine sites under direct management in North Yorkshire; four in Nidderdale, three near Green Hammerton, and then our two newest ones are in Wensleydale.

‘We’ve then got two sites with franchised partners in other parts of England: one in Norfolk and one in the Peak District near Buxton, and possibly one coming soon in Devon. They do a lot of the same activities and tree plantings as us, but they sell their offerings through our website. From a business point of view it’s a way of growing the concept without having to do all the work ourselves and manage all the land, while for other people who want to introduce a biodiversity project with their land but don’t have the means of running it as a business, they can use our platform. So it’s a win win.’

In order to help individuals and businesses give back to nature, Make It Wild offer a variety of ways to get involved. ‘For businesses, there’s the chance for your staff to be invited down and do volunteering activities, whether that’s tree planting or maintenance. Also the business side of it has grown a lot with the growing understanding of climate change and greenhouse gases. Trees absorb carbon dioxide so a big growth area for us is planting trees to offset a businesses’ carbon footprint.

'On the other hand, for individuals our trees are available for personal dedications such as birthdays and weddings, or we also have a very special memorial woodland where the trees are planted with the ashes of a loved one. They’re all available on our website across our different nature reserves, and we also have some century-old trees which we can dedicate as we have some beautiful ancient woodland too.

‘The memorial trees are a bit different as this is a premium service where we collect the ashes and a partner business uses a patented method to make the ashes safe,’ explains Helen. 'They carry out this process before planting a tree of the family’s choice into a biodegradable pouch together with the person’s ashes. We then set a date for the family to come to the woodland and join us in planting the tree. That can be a bit of a ceremony if they want. They might bring a celebrant or a rabbi with them, but often it’s just the family who help plant the tree and then they can give the tree its first water. They also often plant flowers around it, or a lot of the trees have got hanging wicker hearts or woven decorations, and it really becomes a place for the family to visit whenever they like.’

The work of Make It Wild is not just about planting trees. It also involves digging ponds, putting up bird boxes, and creating wildflower meadows. ‘We’re part of the rewilding movement and that’s the way we manage the land which hasn’t got trees on it,’ says Helen. ‘We’ve got a bit famous for planting trees but I want to stress that there’s so much more to it. We do surveys of our sites and the results show we’re doing the right sort of land management to actually help nature.

 ‘We’ve got nine sites under direct management in North Yorkshire; four in Nidderdale, three near Green Hammerton, and then our two newest ones are in Wensleydale’

A Deer, Wild Flowers and a Redpoll

‘For example, our management of Bank Woods, the second site we bought, is part of our rewilding work. We removed sheep from the land and introduced very low numbers of native cattle and ponies. In doing that, we’ve bought back loads of wildflowers that weren’t there before. That’s because the way sheep graze is really bad for wildflowers, they just eat everything down to the root practically and it’s really hard for any wildflowers to grow. Whereas if you have cows they don’t do that in quite the same way and their hoof prints churn up the earth so seeds can grow more easily.’

Make It Wild now offer a range of experiences and activities where people can try things like foraging, nature-inspired art workshops, and natural mindfulness walks. They also have an active volunteer programme every Thursday where volunteers come to help them with whatever jobs need doing, and one of these volunteers nominated them for the BBC Make a Difference Award.

‘We’ve been up for a couple of business awards this year which we’ve applied for ourselves so we knew what to expect. But with the Make A Difference Award it was a really lovely surprise,’ Helen explains. ‘One of our volunteers has nominated us and he says it’s really for the way in which our work has helped nature and the community. Our first bit of land has a public footpath around it so people can go and enjoy it, and see the wildlife, any time they like. We also work with some mental health charities and offer them discounted places on our wellbeing events.

‘We’ve absolutely got biodiversity as our number one aim but we’ve managed to run it as a business which makes enough money to plough into the next project’

Tawny Owl

‘Our volunteers absolutely love coming to help and several of them who had retired were on the verge of being terribly lonely and depressed, but then they discovered us and now they come every week. They’ve made friends and they’re out in the fresh air doing interesting things. The volunteer who put us up for the award has access to our ancient woodland and he takes lots of amazing bird photographs so I think he’s just so grateful that we’ve given him a second lease of life after his retirement really.’

The Make It Wild business is in a growth phase with a focus on their new franchise partnership model, and Helen emphasises that this really is to build on their main aim to support nature. ‘I think we’ve got the formula right; we’ve absolutely got biodiversity as our number one aim but we’ve managed to run it as a business which makes enough money to plough into the next project. No one’s going to get rich out of it except for nature,’ she laughs.

‘Our mission statement is that it’s not our aim to support nature, it’s our purpose, and that really is embedded in every decision we make. We know that we’re doing the right thing for nature so it’s better for nature if we grow bigger. We’re committed to growing the business, and while we may grow in North Yorkshire again, I think it’s important that we’re growing through partners across the UK too so that other people can benefit from the model we’ve developed while also being able to help nature in this way.’

Read More: Meet the Former Sunderland Teacher who Left Education to Become a Northumberland Woodland Officer

So far Make It Wild have planted an impressive 60,000 trees, and they’re not slowing down any time soon. ‘Chris made a pledge when the Northern Forest was launched,’ Helen says. ‘It’s a project involving the Government and the Woodland Trust where they want to plant a huge band of trees across the North of England and Chris pledged to plant 100,000 trees for the project. So that’s always in the back of our minds and he’s really committed to achieving that. We’re up to our 60,000th tree and I think we’ve got until 2028 to do all of them, so we’re doing okay!’

While they’re not expecting you to plant thousands of trees yourself, Helen believes everyone can and should play their part in helping nature to thrive. ‘Part of our work is to inspire people to love nature as much as we do, and we think that’s really important because nature is in terrible trouble,’ she says. ‘We want everybody to know that, and to think of ways that they can help. I do a lot of public speaking as part of the business and I always encourage people to let their gardens be a bit wilder, to try to introduce a pond, plant wildflower seeds, and that kind of thing. As well as being a business I think we see ourselves as campaigners really, as activists for nature, and we really want to spread the word that it’s so important to do everything we can to protect our wild spaces.’

The BBC Make a Difference Award ceremonies are taking place across England from September 2023. For more information about Make It Wild visit

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