Durham Wildlife Trust has launched an urgent appeal to secure the future of a nature reserve in the heart of the North-East. PETER BARRON talks to the ‘home-bird’ leading the campaign

EVER since her dad gave her a pocket-guide to wildflowers when she was at primary school, Emily Routledge has had a passion for nature.

Decades on, she’s heading up the biggest fundraising appeal in the proud 53-year history of Durham Wildlife Trust in a bid to secure the future of one of the North East’s most important nature reserves.

As she surveys the greenery of Rainton Meadows, flower-rich home to more than 200 recorded species of birds, Emily is a woman on a mission: to make sure nature has breathing space here for generations to come.

(Image: Peter Barron)

“This is our chance to secure the future of the site, and we have to seize it,” she says, unable to resist opening her mobile phone, so she can check the fundraising page on the Trust’s website to see how donations are progressing towards a £54,000 target.

The opportunity has arisen for the Trust to buy fields on the edge of Rainton Meadows, and create a vital buffer between nature and housing, so the race is on to raise the money needed.

The total needed to buy the land is £540,000, which Durham Wildlife Trust hopes to secure from the Biffa Award, part of the Landfill Communities Fund. To release the funding, the Trust has to raise ten per cent as match funding.

Success for the appeal would open an important new chapter in the history of Rainton Meadows, which was the site of Rye Hill opencast mine until a conservation partnership between UK Coal, Durham Wildlife Trust, and the City of Sunderland transformed it into a nature reserve in 1996.

Just off the A690 between Durham and Sunderland, the nature reserve covers 74 hectares of grassland and wetland, and has grown steadily in significance over the years, with a network of paths and viewing areas, a popular visitor centre, shop, café, and educational facilities.

Home to the Trust’s headquarters, the meadows are open to visitors seven days a week and are bursting with an abundance of wildlife. Bird species include curlews, lapwings, great white egrets, every British variety of owls, redshank, and oystercatchers. It is a particular source of pride that the willow tit – endangered in other parts of the country – is also flourishing on the meadow.

Other wildlife on the reserve includes stoat, weasel, brown hare, roe deer, dragonflies and damselflies can also be spotted, while Exmoor ponies and sheep are used to naturally manage the grasslands during the winter.

(Image: Ray Haldane)

Acquiring the extra land will enable the Trust to not only protect the species already present but provide the opportunity to attract more wildlife through the creation of extra hedgerows, seasonal ponds and wildflower meadows.

It would also help solve a persistent flooding problem that affects the access road during the winter.

For Emily, who was promoted to become the Trust’s Head of Development and Communications last year, it can’t come soon enough.

“This is the biggest individual giving appeal the Trust has ever done, and it’s a glorious opportunity for nature lovers to play their part in securing and extending a beautiful site for future generations,” she explains.

“Buying this land will enable us to create a buffer between the existing nature reserve and nearby housing, protecting existing species and giving us scope to attract more wildlife to a special part of our region.”

As she speaks, Emily can’t stop smiling, such is her excitement that the appeal is underway, creating the possibility that the nature reserve could grow by 30 per cent in time for its 30th anniversary, in 2026.

As a local lass, whose passion for nature conservation was sparked by that childhood gift of a wildflower pocket-guide, it clearly means a lot to be leading such an important project.

“I’m a home-bird – I’ve never gone far from the nest – and I know how much difference this will make to the ecology of the area, so we have to make it happen,” she declares.

Born in South Shields, and raised in East Boldon, her dad, Dr Patrick Routledge, was a marine engineer and lecturer, while mum, Tracey, was deputy manager of South Tyneside Citizens Advice, and a fundraising volunteer for Save The Children.

“She used to take me along to help on the fundraising stalls at Westoe Village Fair,” Emily recalls.

From an early age, she was determined to work in conservation, and took an early step in that direction as a 16-year-old when she landed a job as a tour guide and house assistant at Souter Lighthouse, run by the National Trust, on the Sunderland coast.

“One of my jobs as house assistant was sweeping the stairs – there were 106 flights, if I remember correctly!” she laughs.

However, after graduating with a degree in countryside management from Newcastle University, jobs in conservation initially proved difficult to find without previous experience.

Emily carried on working at the lighthouse for seven seasons, as well as serving behind the bar at the Stadium of Light, before moving into the sales office at the home of Sunderland Football Club.

When a job came up as a wedding co-ordinator at Wynyard Hall, she saw working at a historic stately home as a move back towards conservation. She spent two years there, while continuing to apply for conservation jobs, and was finally successful when she joined Durham Wildlife Trust as membership development officer eight years ago.

In 2021, she became Supporter Development Manager, with additional responsibility for managing volunteers, and was promoted to her current role in June last year.

“It’s my dream job, knowing that I’m working for an organisation that’s making a real difference, and helping nature to flourish in the area where I grew up,” she says.

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Through the appeal to buy the fields on the edge of Rainton Meadows, Durham Wildlife Trust has been given the chance to make an even bigger difference, and it’s Emily’s job to galvanise support.

“Please help us make it happen,” she says, before excitedly checking the fundraising page again for the latest update.

Over almost three decades, this special place has gone from opencast coal mine to nature reserve. Now, there’s the opportunity to add more land, more wildlife, and more greenery.

Call it a natural progression.