A local legend

Photo; Paul Madgett

Everyone at Devon Wildlife Trust was saddened to hear of the passing of Cyril Cole. Cyril has been a great friend of DWT for many years, a passionate advocate for wildlife and a real force for good.
Cyril Cole with green hay bale

Photo, True North for the North Devon Gazette 

Cyril and DWT had a long and fruitful relationship, restoring Culm grasslands and meadows around Northern Devon over the past 12 years. Cyril was a great exponent of the ‘green hay’ technique for improving the wildlife value of grasslands. Using this approach, his magnificent Culm meadows were the seed source for the restoration or creation of many, many hectares of beautiful, wildlife-friendly grassland habitat. The increase in wildlife value of these sites can be incredible just a few years after spreading green hay. Cyril took great pride in his many successful grassland restoration projects. He invariably stayed in contact with customers (who often became friends), providing invaluable ongoing management advice. Any business would do well to model their ‘aftercare’ package on Cyril’s approach.

Cyril’s more recent approach to farming grew out of both his love of nature and his recognition that much of his early farming life had been spent ‘fighting’ against nature. He took the attitude that it was far better not to fight nature, but to learn from her, a sentiment that should be adopted far more widely. He certainly took pride in how much good his green hay did for wildlife, but he also enjoyed the notoriety his unconventional approach brought. He has gleefully told me of several conventional farmers who accused him of being a ‘weed farmer’ and wasting his time. They were soon put in their place when he told them how much his green hay sold for.

Culm grassland

My first meeting with Cyril was on one of his beautiful Culm meadows at Lower Ash Moor. During the very wet autumn of 2017 ground conditions meant that cutting and spreading green hay was not possible. Instead, we used low ground-pressure kit to harvest and spread the wildflower seeds. Cyril had not seen the brush-harvester before and was fascinated to see it in action; in subsequent years he was keen for us to harvest seeds from less accessible areas of his grassland using this technique. On this first visit my colleague and I had some technical issues which left us scratching our heads for a solution. Cyril disappeared back to the farm for 5 minutes and returned with everything we could need to sort our minor electrical problems. The day was saved and harvesting was able to continue. This was typical of Cyril – he was very practically minded and always seemed able to see a simple practical solution to any problem.

Cyril was always keen to learn (‘you’re never too old to learn’ was certainly one of his philosophies) and happy to listen to the experiences of others. When he was given an ipad he took to it like a duck to water. I’ve never seen so many emojis littering an email – occasionally interpreting the symbols became like trying to decipher a coded letter. Re-reading a few of his emails my most common response is laughter – his sense of humour certainly translated very well into the email/emoji medium.

Cyril was widely known and very highly regarded throughout the South West. His work dowsing for water and installing bore holes took him all around the region, and he had a remarkable memory for the people and places he visited. If I were to mention a possible seed harvesting site or potential meadow restoration project, he almost invariably knew the area and could tell me when he’d visited (often this was twenty years ago), the depth he’d had to dig to get to water on the neighbouring farm and the quirks of the long-departed landowner. The flip side is that very many of the landowners I meet and work with know and respect Cyril – his name is almost a currency for respect and acceptance.

Cyril Cole

Photo, True North for the North Devon Gazette

Phone conversations with Cyril could be something of an adventure. From left-field questions such as ‘how would you age an egg that has been buried for hundreds of years?’, discussions about germination rates of yellow rattle, updates on local issues, details of landowners who would like DWT to get in touch, latest kestrel sightings on the Culm, stories about filming green hay works with an impressionable young film crew and, of course, the inevitable updates on his resident barn owls. His most recent emails were to send over some photos and a short video of this year’s first brood.

Cyril was fantastic at bringing people together; I think that one of his greatest achievements may be the vast number of links he forged between the people he came into contact with - he has been the catalyst for many friendships and productive working partnerships. Often these meetings of minds took place during tea and cake after one of the regular summer walks that Cyril would lead over his farm, guiding large groups around his Culm grasslands and hay meadows. Invariably these walks were well attended and he and Kathleen have raised thousands of pounds for local charities, particularly Devon air ambulance. Having attended a couple of these events, it is hard to say whether the repeat visitors were drawn to return more by the fascinating and idiosyncratic guiding, by the chance to renew old friendships, or by the amazing array of delicious cakes provided by Kathleen.

Hare sitting in long grass

Photo, Jim Higham

Cyril’s love of wildlife was wide-ranging but hares and barn owls were probably the top of the bill for him. He told me once that he had become concerned that the hares in his fields were becoming too used to seeing his Land Rover and were no longer scared of vehicles. This would obviously not be good news if they were on the roads and expected every vehicle to slow down and stop to let them pass. To counter this risk he decided to ‘train’ the hares to be scared of vehicles. I confess that I have no idea how effective this was – but when he took me to see hares on the fields adjacent to the farm they seemed unconcerned by the Land Rover and our presence!

Our DWT Director for Conservation and Development first met Cyril in the mid 2000’s and their shared love of meadows was the start of a great friendship. Peter shared an enduring memory when Cyril was being interviewed for an Inside Out film. He was asked what sparked his enthusiasm and what he wanted for the future. It was one of the only times Cyril was lost for words as he thought about what he would give to future generations. The answer is for all to see and remember – stunning new meadows, revived wildlife and wonderful memories of one of our county’s best.

Cyril will be sorely missed by a great many of DWT’s staff, members and supporters. I’m sure that everyone who spent time with him will agree that the experience was a privilege. Our thoughts are with Cyril’s family at this very difficult time, and although this is a terribly sad occasion I hope that the thoughts of the amazing work that Cyril has accomplished, and the massive influence he has had might bring some solace.