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Sustainable Stories: An interview with Dorset-based environmental pioneer Julia Hailes

With a remarkable sustainability journey spanning decades, Dorset-based Julia Hailes has not only authored nine impactful environmental books but also co-founded an esteemed environmental think tank and consultancy. Spearheading the establishment of multiple sustainability-focused companies and serving on the board of numerous organisations, Julia’s proactive attitude is a force for sustainable change.

Settled in her eco-home in Hooke, Dorset where she and her husband host an annual Wilding Weekend, it was a pleasure to chat with Julia for our first ‘Sustainable Stories’ feature. Julia shares insights into her environmental motivations, eco-building in Dorset, her fascination with insects, and her vision for a wilder, connected landscape.

Throughout your ambitious career, you've been deeply involved in various environmental endeavours. What has been your main motivation all these years?

It all goes back to a pivotal moment that galvanised my journey into environmentalism - in 1983 during a trip to South America. I went to the Pantanal in South East Brazil and found it teeming with life, with huge flocks of birds, beautiful toucans; an abundance of wildlife with a thriving eco-system. The memories of that colour and vibrancy linger still. But, amidst this beauty, the jarring sound of chainsaws echoed, a stark reminder of the relentless destruction underway. The rainforest may have stretched into the distance but this made me realise that it was not infinite and that I must do everything I can to stop its destruction. Sadly, we’ve lost so much forest over the past 40 years - and there are other environmental battles to fight, including climate change. Ironically, now my journey has come full circle - last year I became an ambassador for the Rainforest Trust in the UK. My mission is still to protect and preserve our natural world for future generations.

You've undertaken a remarkable eco-building initiative at your home in Dorset. This must have been a huge endeavour. Can you share some of the key lessons?

My journey into eco-building began in 2010 when I undertook an eco-renovation project on a flat in London - and then continued when I moved to Dorset in 2012. This project became the cornerstone of my life for about a decade and has not been without its challenges! Implementing large-scale sustainable renovations is inherently complex. Each project felt like I was starting from scratch, requiring constant problem-solving as I shunned some of the mainstream thinking and embraced eco-innovations. I did manage to install an air-source heat pump, lots of solar panels, LED lighting throughout and amongst other things, but I’d like to do so much more - and keep thinking of new ideas for improvement.

Another consideration with the Dorset build was pushing the boundaries and creating an exemplar project that might inspire others and provide space for multiple activities across the site.

Your home in Hooke is fast becoming an epicentre for wilding activity in Dorset. Hosting initiatives like the Wilding Weekend in conjunction with the National Garden Scheme reflects your holistic approach to environmentalism. Would you elaborate on your wild vision?

Towards the end of our renovation project, I realised that it shouldn’t stop with our buildings but extend to the landscape as well. At the beginning of Covid, in 2020 our wilding project took off. I found a brilliant team of people to help transition our land to maximise wildlife. We dug ponds, made wildflower meadows, built insect habitats and installed multiple bird boxes. The great thing is that the wildlife seemed to notice! We’ve seen a significant rise in butterflies, moths, bees and other insects as well as barn owls swooping over the meadows feeding on field mice and other rodents. There are moles, frogs, toads, newts, ant nests and yes lots of snails too. We embrace them all.

The wonderful thing is that there are always more things to notice as I go around the garden - and I’ve become fascinated by these small changes - in particular learning about the insects and spotting different varieties.

Whilst Isabella Tree has been inspirational with her project at Knepp in Sussex, in demonstrating what can be done on a large scale, our Wilding Weekend aims to show what everyone can do in their gardens. I want people to feel inspired by the changes in this small ecosystem and feel like they too can have a positive impact. By raising awareness, gifting people a beautiful day in a beautiful setting, and sharing knowledge, I hope to grow a collective passion for wild places.

If you were to summarise your environmentalism, what would be your underlying thinking?

“If you don't like something change it”. That’s what I used to tell my sons if they complained about something they didn’t like at school or beyond. It’s not just about challenging injustices but about changing mindsets - it sums up what I’ve been doing for many years.

For example, in writing our Green Consumer Guide book, we encouraged people to recognise their power as consumers - voting every day about how they were living and what they were buying. At the same time, we advised companies to take account of the market demand for greener products, which meant taking account of their full life-cycle impact.

In the early 1990s, I got involved in an African project which helped me see the benefits of using nature as a model. Applying eco-system thinking to business makes so much sense as it highlights the multitude of impacts that can be caused by one relatively small change. It also helped me look at things more holistically, recognising how interconnected everything is.

Today the crisis we face in terms of climate change, biodiversity loss and even pollution is making me more radical. I believe that it’s not sufficient to continue with ‘business as usual but a bit greener’ - we need system change. This means changing mindsets and recognising that the primary purpose of businesses shouldn’t simply be about making money, but about changing the world for the better. For example, you can’t excuse destroying old-growth forests or pouring sewage into rivers simply because there is a demand for whatever product you are producing.

Equally, we need to tackle the fact that we’re the most wasteful species on the planet. We don’t think twice about using something for a fleeting second and then chucking it away. For example, how many disposable paper napkins do you get through in a week? I constantly challenge restaurants, bars and cafes about their liberal use of napkins - why not leave it to people to take one if they really need it? This might seem trivial but the land area taken up by intensive forestry and the amount of energy and water used to make paper is huge.

This is really about not simply accepting things as they are but trying to repair the damage that’s already been done. When I started my environmental career the focus was on sustainability which is about making sure that we are not using more resources than the planet can produce. Now, there is a shift in perspective as we recognise we have to support regeneration and replenishing resources, wherever possible.

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for promoting sustainability, particularly in Dorset?

My vision for Dorset is one of resilience and innovation—a beacon of sustainability for communities worldwide. By embedding environmental education in schools, empowering businesses to embrace sustainable practices, and fostering a culture of sharing, repairing and caring, we can pave the way for a brighter future. From renewable energy projects to wilding initiatives, Dorset has the potential to lead by example, demonstrating that environmental stewardship is not only essential but also enriching for all generations. It’s not a sacrifice but a better quality of life that can knit the community together. Together, we can create a legacy of sustainability that transcends generations. Why can’t our county take a lead and demonstrate how much we can do at a local level?


Julia’s Wilding Weekend at Hooke in Dorset takes place on 15th and 16th June. Opening hours will be 10.30am to 4.30pm. Browse the wildflower meadows, a cascade of ponds, insect homes, a medieval walkway, a bat-egg (!), mown paths through swaying grass and lots more.

There will be talks, tours and stalls as well as things to buy and things to eat. There will be a large selection of books about wilding, nature, and conservation for both adults and children, and the wonderful Bee Happy Plants & Seeds will have a stall selling plants that appeal to pollinators.

Don’t miss the Giant Puppets on Sunday! Find out more here.



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