Girl Friday


Sophie Giles swapped working on an industrial estate for life as an island girl – Tracie Beardsley met Brownsea Island’s youngest ranger

All images:
Courtenay Hitchcock

On her lunch breaks, Sophie Giles used to seek out the only green space on the bleak industrial estate where she worked on a cosmetics production line.
Now she spends well-earned lunch hours dipping in the sea or sitting beneath picturesque pines, enjoying incredible views of her workplace – Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour. Her commute is the refreshing boat ride across the world’s second largest natural harbour to the idyllic island.
When I meet her, Sophie was still processing the news that she’d just been appointed a National Trust Ranger. One of only three on the island, she’s the youngest and only female in the team.

Sophie has had to learn to drive tractors and crew boats

No longer struggling
In a whirlwind year as an apprentice, the 22-year-old has learned to drive tractors, crew a boat, use chainsaws and brushcutters and all manner of other ‘boy’s toys’. As well as learning on the job, her online lessons in ecology, biodiversity, conservation and the island’s history are obviously paying off. Sophie pauses to point out baby oystercatchers, she marvels at the stunning passiflora just coming into bloom and talks confidently about the habitats around her. No wonder her impressed tutor nominated her for Apprentice of the Year.
Sophie says: ‘At school, college and university, I fell short and struggled. My grades were low, and though I really wanted to succeed, I found even simple tasks very difficult.’
Although a talented artist, Sophie quit her BA in graphic art in the second year and volunteered on Brownsea for six months. ‘My parents were worried I was dropping out and losing direction, but I felt an urge to be outdoors, to do something that spoke truer to myself. Getting my hands into the soil and doing physical work felt right.’

Sophie Giles

Bracken pulling, ragwort monitoring, thinning out trees – her ranger role involves huge amounts of practical and very physical conservation work. ‘It’s hard work, but I come home exhilarated. In my previous job, I’d drive home and sit in my car for ten minutes with my head resting on the steering wheel just needing to decompress. No energy or enthusiasm. Working with nature I’m super-inspired. It’s really switched on my creative side. I’ve started drawing again.’
Favourite task so far? ‘Surveying butterflies. On a sunny day you walk around the different habitats and log all you see. We share the data with the Butterfly Conservation Trust. It’s a true indicator of the island’s biodiversity.

Sophie’s working day is a far cry from her previous job on a cosmetics production line

Moth traps are super-fun too. You set them at night and in the morning it’s like finding treasure! Lots of wonderful species, vital food for the churring nightjars we have nesting here.’
Keen to share her new-found knowledge, Sophie helps support a government-funded scheme in partnership with Dorset Wildlife Trust, hosting free school visits. She has used her artistic skills to design a series of educational activities, along with an engaging booklet that inspires kids to work within nature.
‘Our aim is to empower children. These school visits are such a success, with kids from all backgrounds and educational levels getting stuck in and curious. It’s a dynamic and exciting project.’

Christmas thermals
As we talk, the weather is glorious, with the temperature in the high 20s. I wonder if working on the island in the depths of winter is such fun?
Sophie recalls: ‘I’ve worked one winter here. The staff boat broke down so we had to cross on the logistics barge – essentially a metal bath tub. Normally, my Christmas list is full of fru-fru nonsense, but last year insulated socks and fur-lined boots were added to it rapidly!
‘It’s a very chilly start in the winter months, but once you start thinning out trees, you soon warm up. I’m also a great believer in power porridge breakfasts – making sure it’s full of peanuts, almonds, spirulina and chai seeds.
‘Being in an environment I’m truly passionate about, around like-minded people, I’m thriving and finally excelling with my studies. I’m very grateful to have found “my thing” after feeling I couldn’t succeed at anything.’

Pulling bracken is just one of the day to day tasks under Sophie’s responsibility

Quick fire questions:

A-list dinner party guests?
I’m a Springwatch fan, especially as it was filmed in Dorset recently, so Chris Packham with Sir David Attenborough. Native American musician Mariee Sioux – her music is so grounding and in tune with nature. It’d be fun inviting Mary Bonham-Christie, the ‘Demon of Brownsea’, the reclusive owner who believed in leaving nature alone.
Book by your bedside?
The Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb (I love fantasy fiction) and also Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life by George Monbiot – it’s a captivating, beautiful book.


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