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Meet AJ – he talks to the animals!

We’re on the trail of the Forest Rangers, those experts and adventurers who are central to the Forest Holidays experience. This week AJ, Forest Ranger at Keldy, shares his thoughts.

I love my job. I will never tire of “wow” moments: when people see a roe deer for the first time or the spark catches when they are making a fire or they see a tawny owl across a clearing.

I have always been an outdoors person. When I was about 14, I announced to my mum that I was off for an adventure. My mate and I packed a couple of tins of beans, caught a train and then walked out across the Chilterns. We slept under the stars and the next day I saw my first red kite soaring like a pterodactyl through the sky. Of course it was only years later that I identified it as a red kite.

Sleeping out in the forest is an adventure everybody should try at least once in their lives. As dusk falls, the pheasants fly up to roost and the birdsong becomes silent. Forest noises become intensified and the wild bear you think is crashing through the wood towards you turns out to be a tiny vole. But it is a beautiful, primal experience that changes how you see the world.

My office is the forest. I spend most of my time out with guests on one of our many activities, from Bush Skills and Junior Rangers in the day, to the Twilight Walk and the Night Vision walks as dusk falls.

We have a Gruffalo hunt for the Junior Rangers. We look for evidence of all the animals in the book, from their tracks to their habitats and even their poo. The parents love it as much as the children.

One warm night last summer we spotted a bat. We stood in a circle and I flicked a piece of pea gravel into the centre of the circle. As it came down, the bat swooped towards it, right through the middle of us and out through the legs on one of the guests. Another wow moment.

My favourite animal is probably the barn owl. There’s one on the back hill at Cropton, and the dance of its wing tips as it swoops silently through the night air momentarily stops time.

I took two doctors on the Night Vision walk recently. A husband and wife from London. It was a cloudy, damp night, but as we got to a clearing in the forest, the cloud lifted and the moonless sky was revealed. Their reaction to seeing the Milky Way for the first time in their lives made me realise why I do this job.

If I wasn’t a Forest Ranger I would be in conservation. Probably involving the protection of our native British species.  We are borrowing the planet from future generations yet we take so much and give very little back.

Every thoughtless action we take against nature, however small, has a ripple of consequences. Litter is the most thoughtless and dangerous problem in the forest.

Spring is my favourite season. Everything starts to wake up and old friends return. I look out for the first wolf spider, the reappearance of prehistoric pill bugs, goshawks finding their old nests.  The swallows returned this morning and are sitting chatting on the telegraph wire. To think they have flown to Africa and back since the autumn is mind-blowing.

I spent 14 years as an outdoor activities instructor.  This job is safer, although I have fallen over a few times in my excitement to show guests my latest discovery.

I talk to the animals. I really do. If you bark to a deer they know you are not a threat. We saw a woodpecker yesterday; I tapped on a pine tree with a cone and it came closer to see what it thought was another woodpecker. I hoot to the tawny owls too, they think it’s a rival male. I’m not saying we understand each other’s conversation but it does make me feel connected.

The four fundamentals of survival are food, fire, water and shelter. On our bush skills activity, we pretend that we have survived a plane crash and then set about ensuring we can survive until help arrives.

Yorkshire is the best place on earth. Did you know that when the heather is out on the moorlands you can see the colour from space?

We have it all at Cropton and Keldy. 27 square miles of moorland and forest on the doorstep, a river running by, waterfalls and hill top lookout points with amazing views. There is an area of the forest that is almost untouched. You could imagine seeing dinosaurs there.

No one is immune from the draw of the forest. One dad came with his son “to watch”. He had expensive shoes and pristine clothes on. Within 10 minutes he was knee deep in the forest, building a den. He said it took him right back to building dens with his mates as a child.

I’ve set up web cams in the forest. On the night walk we see what’s been caught on camera then go looking for the tracks. It brings the forest to life for people.

Come and meet me at Keldy. I’ve got so much to show you