‘Giving back to Nature’: A conversation with Helen Neave, co-founder of ‘Make it Wild’

The majority of environmental news is dominated by depressing, defeatist narratives that describe the decline of nature in every corner of the planet, with humans commonly blamed for this destruction. Helen and Christopher Neave challenge this, as 14 years ago, distressed by the environmental situation, they decided to take action.

Copyright: Make It Wild Ltd, 2024.

Although now ‘Make it Wild’ is a successful rewilding business that offers a variety of services including bird box sponsorships, tree sponsorships and carbon offsetting, it began as a family project. After Christopher sold his business, he and Helen decided to purchase 26 acres of land in Yorkshire, at what is now their flagship site, Sylvan Nature Reserve, to ‘give back to nature’.

At first, they were unsure of how best to achieve this as Helen was still working as a surgeon and had no prior experience in conservation. As a result, they sought advice from a variety of experts and soon discovered that supporting biodiversity was the key. Therefore, to promote biodiversity, they created a wide range of habitats including clearings, ponds and wildflower meadows in addition to planting 18,000 trees.

“We’ve done it, we’ve brought nature back”

It took some time for the results of this effort to become apparent. Yet, only a few years later, Helen was eating her lunch following a tiring morning of work when she heard bird song. She remarked upon the birds, the bees and the butterflies and how the environment had been completely transformed and she realized they had done it – they had brought nature back.

Copyright: Make It Wild Ltd, 2024.

It was at this point Helen and Chris realised they could make a real, meaningful difference; following their success they decided to do it again. However, they needed to find a way to make it both economically and environmentally sustainable. This led to the creation of ‘Make it Wild’.

In 2017, to get their business underway, they purchased land at Bank Woods in Harrogate, significantly expanding the project, as this site covered over 100 acres. Since then, ‘Make It Wild’, has continued to grow.

Helen is, rather humble about their inspiring origin story, and her genuine passion for nature is clearly visible. Her proudest moments are those which demonstrated a clear return of biodiversity. This devotion to wildlife and the environment again shines through in their mission statement: ‘It’s not our aim to protect nature, it’s our purpose’.

“Every day is different”

Alongside playing a very important role in nature conservation, another perk of the job – according to Helen is its variability. She told me that even as a director with more of an overseeing role, ‘every day is different’ and she still likes to get her hands dirty when it comes to planting trees and fixing drystone walls.

That said, these more practical tasks are often the responsibility of their land management staff, who do a wide variety of jobs ranging from improving the car parking area, cleaning and monitoring bird boxes, creating paths, boundary repairs, tree planting to mowing and coppicing- anything to maintain the upkeep of the site.

Copyright: Make It Wild Ltd, 2024.

On the business side of things, Helen discusses how their main growth is in carbon offsetting through tree replanting which requires managing to keep track of which trees are sponsored by who.

Furthermore, community outreach opportunities and the social sustainability which is promoted alongside this, is incredibly important to ‘Make it Wild’. Helen does a lot of work organising volunteer groups both from monthly regulars to corporate groups. She also does frequently public speaking to community groups and colleges.

“Get as much experience as you possibly can”

For Helen, one of the good things about volunteering is that it not only benefits the charity or employer, but it is also useful experience that massively aids in job applications. She acknowledged that volunteering can be a way of getting around the ‘not being able to get a job without experience and not being able to get experience without a job’ paradox.

As an employer, Helen says she meets lots of people with a massive passion for nature, yet what is important is that you can demonstrate this; volunteering is a great way to do this.

Another way is through improving knowledge and learning how to identify different birds or plants. This is particularly true for those with degrees who want to break into the conservation industry who may be overqualified for many of the starting positions, but still need to demonstrate their practical ability to employers.

Copyright: Make It Wild Ltd, 2024.

Another tip Helen offers when it comes to getting a career in the conservation industry is that for those leaving school, apprenticeships are a good option as they allow you to get a well-rounded practical experience alongside going to college. Drawing on her own experience of having an apprentice, she highlights how they strongly benefit employers, but also how apprenticeships are very well managed.

What is essential is to get as much experience as possible – regardless of whether this through an apprenticeship, a degree, or volunteering.

If you would like more information on ‘Make It Wild’, and the services they offer or want to get involved with volunteering for them, please find their website at www.makeitwild.co.uk or follow them on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

All photographs are copyright of Make It Wild Ltd, 2024.


Author Profile | Maisie Wilkinson

Maisie is currently studying for an undergraduate degree in geography at the University of St Andrews. In the future she aspires to work as a researcher or a journalist, with her main interests relating to socio-environmental issues.

Interviews, Organisational Manager