Heather Spratt - the unsung hero of the heathland

Heather amongst some bracken, the final patch to be cleared at the Norman Lockyer Observatory

Heather amongst some bracken, the final patch to be cleared at the Norman Lockyer Observatory - Credit: Charles Sinclair

Charles Sinclair writes for the Herald on behalf of the Sid Valley Biodiversity Group.

Charles Sinclair

Charles Sinclair - Credit: Charles Sinclair

There is a lady who for 17 years has followed her passion for the environment.

She loves its quiet, its abundant wildlife and administering the care that is needed to sustain its health. This lady volunteers in the grounds of the Norman Lockyer Observatory.

The five-acre grounds divide quite neatly into two sections, the grounds in front of the buildings are manged for public events; then there is the remainder, beyond the buildings, largely hidden and unvisited, rich in wildlife and the archaeology of scientific experimentation of days gone by.

This is where you will find Heather working.

Heather Spratt has been tending the grounds at the Norman Lockyer Observatory every day, seven days a week, from 9.30 to 4pm for 17 years. 

That could amount to 30,000 hours of volunteering! And she intends to carry on for another three years.

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Heather is a young at heart, sprightly 77 year-old, and her dedication to her voluntary cause is astonishing.

There have been breaks when she could not attend, for bad weather and Covid-19, but there is little else to dissuade her from ensuring the rare plants and animal habitats are protected and developed.

In her paid and previous working life, Heather ran a courier business, once having to drive up to Bristol with a cargo of lobster to deliver it by noon for the Queen Mother’s lunch.

Despite children and grandchildren, her dedication to her role at the observatory is undiminished.

She could not be happier than tramping through the undergrowth to order and sort out problems on the land. And that land is often prickly with gorse and bramble, or thick with matted stems.

And what are the problems? Bracken mainly, but also the invasive rhododendron.

Heather saw much of her good work lost when Covid prevented her from attending the site; many of the special habits she created became reinfested with bracken.

Over the years she has developed all sorts of resourceful techniques for dealing with the bracken.

And what are the benefits? In the short periods of time I have spent there I have come to appreciate the wealth of wildlife. I haven’t seen a stoat for a long time, but on my first visit one obliged by scampering around one of the observatory buildings quite oblivious to my presence.

Another time a brilliant iridescent green butterfly caught my eye.

It was small but it made up for its size through the brilliance of its colour. A ring of small white dots on its underwing identified it as a Green Hairstreak.

It landed on the gorse and enjoyed the sun while we took photos and examined it closely.

Heather wanted to show me an adder, so frequently resident that at times that she has been able to identify them as individuals.

This time we were unlucky, but its great to know they have found a haven there. She lets me know that you are more likely to get bitten in the spring than the summer, when it is cooler and the snakes cannot evade danger so easily. "

‘I was bitten by an adder once" she declares. It was in March, and it was only later at night when she investigated the itching on her leg that she noticed two puncture marks.

As it was early in the year, she had been wearing thicker clothing. Looking further, she noticed her tights had the same two holes in them, they were surrounded by the thick white liquid of the snake’s venom. Her clothes had saved her from more serious symptoms.

It was a delight to meet Heather, to see her love for the space she tends, creates and shares with the plants and animals of the heath.

I wish her many more years of happiness breathing in the richness of this environment. And I thank her for, as I am amazed by, the thousands of hours of volunteering she has bestowed to the Norman Lockyer Observatory.