Off duty

David Phillips CMIOSH Safety, health and environmental manager, Grŵp Llandrillo Menai

I’ve always been an outdoors, hunting type of person: shooting, fishing and all those things. My grandfather was a gamekeeper, so it runs in the family. I trained as a chef in Switzerland and I was given all the dirty jobs, from gathering herbs to collecting dead animals from farms and I loved it. I returned to Wales to care for a poorly family member, and I really got into the great outdoors. I trained in bushcraft and got all the qualifications, and now I run coastal bushcraft courses and forage walks, and give talks on wild coastal living. The courses I put on range from basic bushcraft to wild cooking.

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I’ve always enjoyed teaching and my day job has crossed over a lot with what I do outside work. After starting my career as a chef, I moved to training young chefs at college, specifically in wild food and butchery. I made the move to safety and health via food safety.

I’ve been running the bushcraft courses for five years. I used to bore people about it at tea breaks and sometimes they would come and walk with me. So I ran a couple of forage walks for chefs and it went from there.

Most of us are remote from our wild heritage. Someone might walk their dog in the woods, but when they do they’re mostly looking at the ground. I train people to look into the woods. You might be stung by nettles, but it doesn’t last long and then you’ll realise that nettles make some of the best rope in the world. We’ve become detached – we’ve got our mobile phones, our computers. The courses take people away from those things. Last month, I had a group who were unsure about eating shellfish. We collected 10 kg of seafood and cooked it and they said it was the best seafood they’d had in their lives.

One night on a course with mostly in-college staff we had wild goat curry. I shot the goat myself (legally), and we boned the legs, cooked and ate it. It’s a challenging, tough meat, but they loved it. One of the group was a keen cyclist and he asked whether I could make the curry again – for 120 cyclists. I think more people know about the goat curry than about me!

Lots of the people I work with come on my courses. I had some colleagues from the travel and tourism department – many of whom have worked for airways – turn up for the course with wheeled suitcases! They loved it, and many keep coming back.

I have also had managers do courses. They have to be quite competitive at work, but when I take them out to the wilderness they become pussycats. I notice that I become much more approachable at work to people who have been on courses with me.

The value I get from running courses is seeing people blossom. I’ve been working at the college for 30 years and most people don’t see me as a chef, because they joined after I gave up teaching. But when you’re sitting with people at 5 am watching the dawn, it changes perceptions. When their faces light up as I demonstrate how to start a fire with flint and steel, it makes my day.

I do all the risk assessments for the courses. Some instructors I know haven’t much idea how to construct a risk assessment, so I help them out with those and writing policies.

When you’re sitting with people at  5 am watching the dawn, it changes perceptions

When I have a department at work that’s difficult to crack, I invite them out. Within two weeks of taking one health-and-safety-averse department on an overnight trip, I received a risk assessment from them. Now they’ve become one of my best departments. The course helped break down barriers. I’m not the guy who says, “No, you can’t do that”. When staff present a problem they often have a solution too. I might tweak it or make suggestions, but it’s coming from them.

Anyone can do my courses. The youngest child who’s been on one was 12 – they came with their father – and the oldest people have been in their 70s. There are lots of good bushcraft schools about – there are some cowboys, so look for qualifications – and all schools will offer a starter course. It’s a cheap hobby. I specialise in coastal bushcraft, natural remedies and wild food; others do woodcraft and navigation. The subject is vast.

On the first night, most people just stare at the fire. The stress flows away and the next day they’re really motivated. It’s doable, and it’s safe, but if you don’t enjoy it enough that’s fine. I have some people who say, “That was fun, but never again!”

 

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