Mike, wild about nature

The overall winner of the Sheffield Telegraph’s Environment Awards talks to David Bocking about his commitment to making the city greener since arriving 51 years ago.

THE Kid from Kremlin Korner remembers looking out east from the flatlands of inner city Manchester towards the Pennine hills and his eventual destination on the other side.

Mike Wild at Skye Edge:

Mike Wild at Skye Edge:

See next week’s Sheffield Telegraph for our supplement featuring all the Environment Awards winners and finalists

“I was drawn to the Pennines, like many people in Manchester. I’d look out to the moors in the distance, which were said to be ‘the ramparts of heaven’.”

Mike Wild grew up in Manchester’s Longsight, the son of Spanish Civil War International Brigade commander Sam and Communist Party and co-operative movement stalwart Bessie.

While his parents entertained Paul Robeson and Joshua Nkrumah, he’d play with a small gang of fellow young communists in the city’s post war bomb craters and industrial smog: hence the Kids from Kremlin Korner, as their less politically active contemporaries would call them.

“From the age of 13 I was escaping to climb on Kinder. I was also fascinated by the wildlife in the town, the frogs in craters on bomb sites, the newts in holes everywhere and the curlews flying across Manchester. I was living in this filthy Lowryesque environment, yet there was wildlife on my doorstep. It must have been ingrained in me as I grew up and that process carried on when I came to Sheffield.”

As he did in 1959, in theory to study biology, zoology and botany but in actuality to rock climb.

“I’d been climbing on Bell Hagg and knew the west side of Sheffield, so when I got here I camped on Sandygate golf course in a pup tent. I was the first in my family to go to university so didn’t know about how to get anywhere to live, I just turned up with a tent.” He eventually found lodgings in Broomhill, where he remembers being staggered by the city’s stone buildings.

“But what struck me was the filth. You could stand at Broomhill and look down into a bowl of black soup with spires and chimneys stuck up though it. But because of the temperature inversions you could look out at the Pennines through blue skies uphill, while in the valleys there’d be this tremendous pollution. I remember groping round in pea soup fogs trying to feel road names on the way home.”

He saw first hand the conditions of people living in polluted cities such as Manchester and Sheffield.

“I’d seen men die from diseases caused by pollution, so I didn’t like industrialisation as it was but my communist upbringing made me see the industrial working class as the vanguard. It’s still there amongst some left wing people that you’re standing in the way of progress if you’re seen as standing in the way of industry.”

After having a ‘gap year’ in Sheffield’s factories and building sites after his degree, Mike moved into teaching, at King Edward’s then Lady Manners in Bakewell, and after a few years training teachers at Totley he found a job at Sheffield Polytechnic where his ideas of urban ecology really took seed.

The early Green movement had unfortunate associations with hippies, teepees and hand-knitted woolly jumpers, he notes, which did nothing to endear Green ideas to the old school Labour party focus on jobs and housing. “They thought if you were Green, you wouldn’t want a factory. But I was saying you could have industrial development but it could be clean industrial development.”

The collapse of local industry in the 1980s actually led to many environmental improvements, he adds.

“The destruction of the economy meant the River Don would run clean anyway because there’d be less pollution coming out. It all coincided with a movement nationally that regeneration had to be accompanied by environmental improvements. The threat was dereliction but it was also an opportunity. We thought for the first time in 100 years the Don is going to be cleaner and we can help it on its way.”

So while working as a lecturer, renovating his house and helping to bring up five sons, the lad from Longsight was also a founder of the Five Weirs Walk group and the local urban wildlife group which became the Sheffield Wildlife Trust.

At the time a trust to promote interest in urban wildlife was seen as a touch left field, to say the least. “When we were talking about the Sunnybank nature reserve at Broomhill, people would say ‘What, are you going to have lions and tigers’?

“But I argued there was more wildlife in the city than in the countryside. You’d have orchids and black redstarts in Attercliffe on derelict sites, whereas in the countryside they were all being sprayed out. By default nature was re-establishing itself.”

The classic example, he says, was the image of a kingfisher sitting on a supermarket trolley in the River Don. He was, he says, at the right place at the right time. A national urban ecology movement was growing, fed by young students keen to use the clean-up of the urban environment as part of the regeneration process. And Sheffield was made for such ideas, he adds, as evidenced by Patrick Abercrombie’s report from the 1920s.

“These areas would be the city’s green lungs. Abercrombie had said that Sheffield has the potential for a network of green like nowhere else in the country.”

So he spent several years lobbying the council to take green issues and urban ecology seriously and setting up ecological and environmental projects. “My living room table was piled up with minutes and the phone bills were sky high. But it had to be done.”

He notes Shakespeare’s advice: ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.’ Or in Sheffield’s case, leads to one of the greenest cities in Europe.

Now 71, he’s proud the city is now much cleaner than it was on his arrival 51 years ago and happy the work has been carried on by plenty of others.

“If I go down to the Wildlife Trust now and they say ‘Hello, who are you?’ I’m OK with that. We always said the best way for getting things done is not to care who gets the credit.”

And he notes the familiarity of the current government’s attitude to any 1980s environmentalist. “They’re calling it Big Society but it’s just reinventing what came out as a response in the 1970s and Eighties. But they can’t just say well, over to you. You can only do it with central government support.”

He describes the process as: ‘Juggling the E Balls’ – “environment, economics, equity, employment and enjoyment. That’s what sustainable development is all about. People were coming to Sheffield 30 years ago to say how do you do it? And we said one day what we’re doing now will become mainstream.”

The kid from Kremlin Korner is still juggling.