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the GiGLer

The newsletter of Greenspace Information of Greater London CIC

Interview, Valerie Selby

GiGL’s Board of Directors are central to our work and our success. Their commitment and expertise helps guide GiGL and keeps us moving forward and developing. Directors are on the front line of biodiversity and open space work in the capital. They are GiGL service users and contribute to our data banks, as well as serving as ambassadors for GiGL.

Here, Valerie Selby, Chair of the Board of Directors, steps up to the plate and volunteers to be our first Director interviewee.

Town or countryside?


Summer or winter?

Too difficult – can I choose spring?

Early bird or night owl?

Early bird

Outdoors or indoors?


Plants or animals?


What species is closest to your heart and why?

I have deliberated over this one and can’t narrow it down so here is a list:

  • Pigs – they make me smile and laugh.
  • Rabbits and hares – it’s the ears and twitchy noses.
  • Plants with green flowers e.g. Moschatel. Everyone else ignores them but they’re subtly beautiful.
  • Oystercatchers – the sound, the orange beak, the busy-ness, the association with holidays.

What is your favourite Greater London open space and why?

The River Wandle. My first memories of wildlife are all linked to where it runs by Wilderness Island in Carshalton. I work with the Wandle today and am always amazed by what lives in its most urban stretch north of Wandsworth town centre to the Thames.

What is your first environmental memory?

“Fishing” in the River Wandle for minnows and caddis fly larvae. Or, sitting under a giant honeysuckle plant in our garden where it formed a kind of den.

What was your first proper job?

Unpaid but I treated it like a “proper job”. I used to spend all my school holidays working with Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers and the local Sutton group of London Wildlife Trust carrying out practical management tasks. I would help organise all the tools for the day’s tasks then clean and put them away at the end. I would also support the field officer and lead sub groups if we had large numbers.

What did you learn then that you keep with you today?

All my basic understanding of how urban habitats work was gained during my time as a volunteer. Most of what I now think of as “common sense” or a “gut feeling” about site management is stuff I learnt as a teenager with SNCV and LWT. Oh, and that most things can be sorted out with a mug of tea and a biscuit!

Who or what inspires you?

I suppose I don’t do this because I’ve been inspired to do it; rather because I have a strong feeling that if I don’t, who will? And why would I expect others to do it, if I don’t do it myself? I suppose I am motivated by “doing my bit” and leading by example so that others have no excuse not to step up to the plate and do the same.

What might someone be surprised to learn about you?

I’m not qualified to do this! My degree is in Amenity Horticulture and, outside of work, I am finding myself increasingly drawn back to the management of more ornamental planted areas, talking to those who grow, sell or manage seeds, herbaceous planting and historic gardens.

What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities for biodiversity in Greater London?

Our greatest challenge is an internal one. It is our constant need as a sector to discuss semantics and gaze at our navels rather than getting out there and delivering. We’ve had the age-old discussion of what word to use (nature/wildlife/biodiversity etc.) every five years since at least 1987 to my knowledge, and probably for many years before that. No-one else gives a damn about the words we use and if we carried out clear demonstrable actions, such has habitat restoration, we wouldn’t need the description of it because people could visit it, stand in it, watch it and enjoy it. It’s procrastination of the worst kind and, as we stand by cogitating, habitats and species continue to be lost. We need to get over ourselves and get on with doing something. On a less ranty note, but still of great concern is a lack of cohesive leadership, particularly from those organisations that have traditionally provided the structure to our discussion and work. Without strong leadership to remind us all that fundamentally we are all working for the same end, I have seen very effective working under the Biodiversity Action Plan process fragment and momentum be lost. On the positive side, this does provide a great opportunity for GiGL to step up as the biggest partnership of environmental organisations in London and begin to “plug” that gap. If every organisation in the GiGL partnership used our environmental data, in every day decision making; which they could all start to do today; there is a huge potential to secure a positive future for biodiversity and open spaces in London.

How do you think biological recording can help?

Biological recording can remind us of the huge wealth of amazing species and stunning habitats that we have and what we stand to lose. It gives everyone (professional or volunteer) the chance to contribute something meaningful to the process; it can show us scientifically how and where to best focus our efforts on habitat restoration and habitat quality improvements; it can give us the facts on which species are using which habitats and surprise us as to what the “most valuable” urban habitats are; and it can demonstrate unequivocally how change is occurring over time, giving us a solid scientific evidence base for prioritising action. We also mustn’t forget that it’s often the first way many people get actively involved with biodiversity. That child catching caddis flies in the Wandle in the 70s had great fun comparing her catch with her friends, learning which were the best spots to find more, and looking at how the caddis flies differed from each other depending upon where they were lodging. These days we’d call that sampling and feed the results to GiGL to inform river management. She called it fun and did it because she loved it.

How did you first get involved with GiGL?

I wish I knew! I was working at London Wildlife Trust when the “Biological Recording Project” was created, which was the precursor to GiGL. Prior to that, I’d been at Sussex Wildlife Trust when the first Recorder software was being established and was responsible for some of the very early work getting all the Sussex county recorder details put onto the system before we could begin to input their records. I guess the concept of a local records centre just always seem eminently logical to me. What’s the point of people collecting records of stuff in notebooks and shoving it under their bed when it could be telling us so much? So, since the Biological Recording Project was established I have always been a fervent, some might say fanatical, advocate of everyone working in partnership to manage wildlife records and to enable those records to be presented to land managers in ways that are idiot proof to make it simple to factor them into decision making about our spaces.

Has anything surprised you about working with GiGL?

I wouldn’t say I’m surprised by it but I’m always very chuffed to the point of being stupidly grateful, when other people get it; when people who are new to biodiversity and new to London just totally accept without question that there is a local records centre and it should be used and supported. It’s obvious to them and it’s nice (and yes, surprising) that we have won the battle of advocacy and can get on with effective delivery. There are still some stalwarts who haven’t come round to our way of thinking but I’m working on them!

What would you tell someone who is considering submitting records to GiGL?

DO IT! We can work with you to ensure that the records are used and managed in a way that ensures you are happy to have us as the custodian of your data. Your records will influence, for the good, so much biodiversity work in London, you couldn’t possibly have the same influence as an individual trying to manage the demand for your records and still be out there doing what you enjoy – spending time in, and with, nature.

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