Hunts’ top ranger returns to farming after quarter century

LITTLE did 30-something Bedfordshire livestock farmer Pat Knight think when he applied for a job in Huntingdon just before one recession that a second economic downturn would turn his life full circle nearly quarter of a century later.

The youthful Pat, four generations of whose farming family still life across the Bedfordshire border in Oakley High Street, thought he had no chance of a job with Cambridgeshire County Council to set up a country park on the outskirts of Huntingdon.

But it was the start of a 24-year career at the head of Huntingdonshire’s countryside services – the district council took over Hinchingbrooke Country Park from the county – that is about to come to an end.

Pat, now 56, takes voluntary redundancy at the end of this month as HDC looks to cut costs to make up for compensation handed over by the Treasury to incompetent bankers.

He will be turning the clock back almost 25 years when he returns upstream in the Great Ouse Valley to raise beef cattle not-quite-so-rare-now Wilshire Horn sheep alongside a bit of wildlife wilderness, and possibly a bit of a farm shop and with educational visits, on his Bedfordshire patch.

Pat’s largely self-financing little countryside ranger empire eventually included 21 people and not just Hinchingbrooke Country Park but 26 miles of the Ouse Valley Way, Paxton Pits Nature Reserve, near St Neots, the huge Great Fen project, Holt Island in St Ives, Coneygear Park in Oxmoor, the former nursery in Godmanchester and scores of village ponds and other wildlife areas across Huntingdonshire.

Ironically, one of the first things he was glad about was Nigel Lawson’s recession of the late 1980s.

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“The county council had plans for a completely useless building on what was then little more than a muddy field at Hinchingbrooke. Luckily, they didn’t have enough money for it, so we were eventually able to get it right,” Pat told The Hunts Post.

“There was nothing there but woodland, grassland, lakes and a lot of mud. With others, I developed and designed the country park ready for the opening in 1989. Since then developments have included the countryside centre, workshop area and habitat improvements.”

Although from a farming background, Pat’s early career included a 10-year stint as a social worker in a children’s home. “I was forever in and out of court, and so many of the problems seemed insoluble, so I got a job as a council grass-cutter.”

But it was experience that stood him in good stead later when the country park was colonized by travelling families and, even though they were less than a mile from force HQ, the police refused to help. In the end, it was Pat’s negotiating skills that helped persuade them to move on.

“At the start, I was not usually welcomed by Hinchingbrooke School or by the local bird and wildlife clubs, so I had to use all my negotiating skills to persuade them we were not going to restrict the way they used what they felt was their rightful domain. In the end, everything ended up hunky-dory.”

Surprisingly, the countryside service largely paid for itself, with capital coming from planning development and grants attracted, and running costs funded by activities, refreshments and rental charges for facilities.

“We knew it was a luxury service, so we couldn’t expect to make big demands on Council Tax.

“But now we’re having to save 40 per cent of our �500,000-a-year budget, and I’m part of that saving.”

What will Pat, who has never yet married, miss most? To judge from the ‘This is your Life’-style scrapbook presented by his colleagues, his separation from them will be a wrench. But he also speaks with profound fondness of the children and adults with learning difficulties whose development and confidence have been nurtured by Pat and his ranger colleagues across the district.

“I feel privileged to have been given a blank canvas to take the service forward, which has been supported by all at HDC.” He even speaks well of most of the elected councillors.