Matt Johnson joined us as a ranger at Paxton Pits in 2004. His main job was to manage the new Pocket Park at Barford Road, which was a no-man's land of builders' rubble and water, overlooked by the new power station and a Tesco supermarket. It was a play-area for juvenile motorcyclists and a dumping ground for shopping trolleys. At one point we even had a travellers camp on the site.
After two years Matt licked the site (and the visitors) into shape and the newly built houses were soon occupied by incomers who began to appreciate the benefits of the park. It has gone from strength to strength and now looks "the business". We regularly hear Cettis warblers and I have even seen a bittern there, but it has been the reptiles that have surprised us. Barford Road is a top site for Lizards and grass snakes, which is why we don't cut the grass in summer.
Because Matt came to us with a lot of practical skills, he soon became a key player on the Paxton site too. We had just acquired the farmland along the river-side and were getting into managing grassland and arable fields To get the grassland in good order, we borrowed sheep and cattle from neighbours and Matt showed a real affinity for farming. "The rest is history", as they say.
Soon the Paxton Pits farming operation was taking all of Big Matt's time and so he handed over Barford Road to Matt Hall (know as Little Matt). Since then farming-for-wildlife approach has grown into more than a full-time job but Matt was helped by our boss Pat Knight, by Ranger Roland Fletcher and by volunteer Davy Jones.
Now Matt has moved on to work for the Wildlife Trusts in Derbyshire where he will be managing their farming operations to make them more commercially viable while still benefiting wildlife. It's a challenge, to say the least, and we wish him every success working and living in that beautiful Peak District National Park. He says he will miss our big skies, but the hills will welcome him I'm sure.
Of course, we've got a problem now! It will be some time before Matt is replaced and I don't think we ever will replace him really.