Naturetrek’s History – Where It All Started


Naturetrek’s History – Where It All Started

The Early Days

In 1981, between a law degree at Exeter University and Solicitors’ Exams in London, Naturetrek’s Chairman and Founding Director, David Mills, headed to Nepal and India for two years – combining a passion for wildlife (especially birding) with a love of walking and mountains. So began a deep-rooted passion for the subcontinent, and particularly for the people and wildlife of the Himalaya. David also discovered Bob Fleming, ‘bird man’ of Nepal and author of the country’s only field guide at the time. Bob had a job that David’s school careers master had negligently failed to flag up. He earned his living by guiding wealthy Americans on long and pioneering trekking expeditions into little-known areas of the Himalaya in search of birds. He lived in a comfortable house in ‘medieval’ Kathmandu, where cars were almost unknown. It was heaven. Was there a better lifestyle? Probably not!

And so, after a period of guiding trekking holidays for Exodus and freelance travel writing, in the summer of 1986 David finally got round to completing the first Naturetrek brochure from a primitive Berber house in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains with the help of Maryanne. They had met in Marrakech in 1985. Maryanne, a zoologist from Perth, Western Australia, was a veteran of many research and surveying expeditions in outback Australia, yet she had initially come to England in 1985 to watch the Australian cricket team, managed and selected by her father, Lawrie Sawle, in the 80s and 90s. But the cricket wasn’t going well. David Gower was having the Ashes series of his career for England, and Maryanne was unimpressed by the weather as well. So she sought the desert heat of Morocco for relief, only to encounter David (who was missing the cricket!), suntanned and in a djellaba, whom she mistook for a local porter.

A year later, the brochure text was gradually completed by candle-light, in the Berber house of Lahcen ibn Mohammed in the mountainside village of Aroumd, and duly posted home each month to a typist-cum-typesetter. That autumn the first Naturetrek brochures were despatched from the living room of a tiny terraced house in Alresford, Hampshire (right).

So began Naturetrek, carrying just 27 clients in 1987 – to Kashmir and Ladakh, Bhutan and Morocco. Remarkably, many of those who travelled with us in that first year continued to do so over the next 30 or even 35 years, and we are most grateful to them, and the great many Naturetrek devotees since who have given us such great support. Amongst them were Cesca and John Inskipp. They travelled on the very first Naturetrek holiday to Kashmir and Ladakh, and many others, but were perhaps unaware of the inspiration that their son Tim had provided David in his teenage years. Like all budding young birders of the 1970s, David hitched around the country in his quest for birds and got by on as little as possible. On occasions though, he had the good fortune to be offered a lift by ‘ace birder’ Tim and his girlfriend, Carol. Many were in awe of Tim’s knowledge and field skills (if a little concerned at the speeds he covered the country in his functional Ford Cortina). He’d been one of the first British birders to have ventured to Nepal, overland, and to have spent a substantial time exploring the country that became his and Carol’s lifelong passion (their field guides to the birds of both Nepal and India used by countless Naturetrek travellers and others today). It was Tim’s tales of the magic of Nepal and its birds that so inspired David, as he clung on to the back seat of Tim’s Cortina, and ensured that it was the first country to which he headed (with Bob Fleming’s phone number and ‘Birds of Nepal’ safely in his rucksack) following his university degree.   

What is so easily forgotten is that Naturetrek emerged in a truly joyful (for David especially), technology-free era. Office computers were unheard of, and the fax machine, mobile phone, emails, websites and social media were modern tools of the tour operator’s trade that were then a mere twinkle in some trouble-maker’s eye! Communications from David and Maryanne to each of their clients, suppliers and overseas partners were carried out simply, by means either of a hand-written letter or aerogramme, or by phone. The latter, of course, was not only costly, but it was also extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to reach overseas representatives by phone in those days. So, on the rare occasion that a client booked late or a last-minute adjustment needed to be made to a long-established holiday plan, a substantial investment (£10 or more!) needed to be made in order to deliver a telex to an overseas partner or leader by phoning the words through to the Portsmouth News’ telex service for onward dispatch. By today’s standards, this was a stress-free environment in which to work, and at least twice a day (if the cheques were coming in) there was need to take a walk through Alresford, with binoculars at hand for some wayside birding, to bank cheques early and catch the last post. It is also worth reflecting on the fact that, today, the data required by our ‘tablets’ in the consumer age generates a greater carbon footprint than all the world’s flights. David, for one, would happily forego the technological advances of the past 35 years, ahead of the abandonment of flights, to slow climate change!  


The inspiration – Nepal 1981 & 1982. David Mills (right) with Richard Fairbank and Nick Preston (left) in the Langtang Valley, sheltering from the monsoon rains.


First Naturetrek brochure


Terraced house in Alresford from which the first Naturetrek brochures were despatched

This was also an era in which the travel trade in the UK operated entirely unfettered by the constraints of regulation. There was no need for an ATOL licence, bonding, and the other requirements for consumer protection later brought in across the EU. It was the perfect time to start a travel business. Better still, in many developing countries accommodation and travel arrangements, prior to governments recognising the milch cow and taxing it excessively, were extremely cheap, allowing us to put together some fabulous packages at very low prices. Even in Europe, prior to the introduction of the Euro, some countries offered especially good value. For a budding travel entrepreneur, the 1980s was a great time to launch a business. We were fortunate indeed.

However, in one area we were more blessed than any other. Many of our clients were 65+. They had lost their 20s to the Second World War. Now retired, they were determined to enjoy their Naturetrek holiday and have a great time, come what may. And challenges did come; challenges galore, for nothing then ran like clockwork as we expect it to today. Planes were frequently delayed, for days, weeks or indefinitely … or borrowed by dignitaries. Charter vessels often had engine problems and occasionally sank. Mountain roads were forever becoming impassable, whether on account of a fallen bridge, landslide, road accident or demonstration, and not cleared. Remote regions were forever being closed, without notice.

Obstacles arose relentlessly in those days, yet tour operating and tour leading were universally such fun – problems forever needing to be solved. Our clients of that time simply loved the adventures we had together, never batting an eyelid, just laughing off each unforeseen situation. They were a golden generation indeed … and we were blessed to have their patronage and honoured to enjoy their company on our fledgling Naturetrek holidays. 

The Late 1980s and Early 1990s

Talking of relentless obstacles, the very first Naturetrek holiday, to Kashmir and Ladakh in July 1987, was one such example. First, we had no plane. The sole domestic carrier at that time, Indian Airlines, did have one for that summer’s schedule between Srinigar and Leh, a new Airbus no less; but they’d purchased it on the cheap, without seats, intending to fit it with Indian-made varieties for the summer run. Thus, although we sat for a hot summer’s day in Srinagar airport with tickets and the promise of a plane with seats; none came, nor looked likely. So, not wishing to be further delayed and to ensure a seamless tour, that afternoon David chose to hire three airport Ambassador taxis, with drivers willing to attempt the two-and-a-half-day drive on dirt roads to Leh. Nine new customers were squeezed in, together with a lot of luggage. Ahead lay one of the highest and most gruelling road journeys in the world, up a pass – the Zogi La – that no-one could yet be certain was passable, following heavy winter snows and a devastating avalanche the previous October that had consumed 1,500 vehicles and their occupants. The route offered no hotel nor restaurant suitable for travelling tourists, so two nights were spent on the flat roofs of willing wayside hosts who fed the adventurers on rice, dal and salt-tea. The drive was a dodgy one, through rivers, ice corridors and the carnage of scattered avalanche victims, slowly revealed by receding snowfields. Yet, we made it, and enjoyed a lovely trek in Ladakh. Another pass, however, now lay in store. The Jugemarec La needed to be crossed on foot to complete our second trek of the holiday, through Kashmir. It was not clear whether the pass was yet open, but rumour had it that locals had crossed it with laden baggage ponies the day before, so we would try the same. What was not mentioned was that one of those poor baggage animals had slipped on the ice and fallen to its death while crossing the pass, so our ponymen took care to cut steps across the most treacherous slopes to enable safe passage for customers and baggage ponies alike. The pass duly completed (though not one of a gravity David would ever permit a Naturetrek group to attempt again!), we had less success crossing swollen rivers which saw ponies lose their footing and most of our fresh food supplies washed down-river. Our loss was the local villagers’ gain as they eagerly sold us a goat and some chickens to keep us fed on trek. Thereon, it was plain sailing, a tour relished and long remembered by all. Indeed, you can read participant Gill Lee's detailed account of this first Naturetrek holiday here


Rooftop accommodation en route to Leh


A truck revealed by the melting snow


Crossing the Jugemarec Pass

Much quicker than expected, David and Maryanne were finding that they needed to be office-based. Already by 1988, they had discovered that they couldn’t lead all the tours themselves as well as run a growing business. So David persuaded his birding friends and early travelling companions, Paul Jepson and Jonathan Eames, to share the leading of all Naturetrek’s predominantly Asian tours in those early years. Like David, Asia was ‘under their skin’ and both ultimately went on to illustrious careers in conservation, Paul heading to Indonesia to become founder of Burung Indonesia, BirdLife International’s partner in Indonesia, and ultimately an Oxford academic, while Jonathan chose to live in Vietnam where he set up BirdLife’s Vietnam Programme in 1993 and remains today as Programme Manager for BirdLife International Indochina (work for which he was awarded an OBE in 2019).

During those early years of Naturetrek, David and Maryanne operated tours exclusively to long-haul destinations, particularly to those in the Himalaya and the rest of the Indian subcontinent. However, there was trouble around the corner in the form of the first Gulf War; when Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Naturetrek bookings ceased. Nobody was prepared to book a holiday at this time, let alone one overflying the Gulf region! The fledgling business had come to a standstill, and David and Maryanne knew that they needed a European programme on which to fall back on at such times. So it was that, in June 1991, David and Maryanne, together with their one-year-old baby son, Thomas (born just hours before the first Rutland Birdfair, which David still managed to set up and run each day), headed to the French Pyrenees to see what the area had to offer. The following year, in June 1992, they returned to the Pyrenees, accompanied by botanist Martin Beaton and his wife Louise, to run two full groups back-to-back from a lovely family-run hotel in Gèdre that we still use to this day. Wallcreepers, Lammergeiers, Black Woodpeckers and Snowfinches were amongst a wealth of birds, and the abundance of flowers and butterflies was even more spectacular. It was the perfect destination for the all-round naturalist and paved the way for the extensive European programme of tours that we offer today to all corners of our home continent.






Black Woodpecker

By 1991, although their futon bed on the floor in a corner of their bedroom-cum-Naturetrek office was comfortable enough, Maryanne had her hands full with a new-born son in an alien land and was beginning to find the sharing of the family’s tiny 3-room Victorian terrace with a red-hot phone, a dodgy second-hand typewriter and 200 boxes of brochures (which occupied all of the living room) quite challenging. Worse, an Amstrad had arrived, which David couldn’t work, but tour leader Paul Jepson and Maryanne could. In those days, indeed for 10 years or more, many group members were supplied with ‘trek packs’ (sleeping bag, sheet sleeping bag, down jackets, etc) which Maryanne lovingly washed and pressed between treks. Kitbags of luxury foodstuffs were also prepared for every tour and trek to such countries as Nepal and Bhutan, in which little could be purchased beyond such staples as rice and vegetables. All these kitbags were then squeezed into an elderly Volvo and taken to Heathrow or Gatwick where, throughout the first 10 years, David greeted every departing Naturetrek group, and assisted them with their check-in. A move to a new-build 4-bedroom house in the nearby village of Bighton – the new Naturetrek HQ – had become essential.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Naturetrek programmes in Europe and Africa were growing steadily, often focusing on areas that other tour operators did not visit. The overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu presented the opportunity for us to become the first wildlife tour operator to pioneer the rich rewards of the Danube Delta and the Carpathians, whilst Corsica and a magnificent hilltop retreat in the Spanish Pyrenees became firm favourites. Advantage was taken, too, of the fabulous flora and fauna of Sardinia and the rest of Italy which other operators had hitherto shunned. In Africa, Ethiopia became a much-loved addition to the fold, even during the years of civil war and famine in the north when we were almost the only visitors. We were beginning to thrive as pioneers of new wildlife tours to exciting new wildlife destinations hitherto unexplored. Bhutan, remote regions of India such as Arunachal Pradesh, and the Russian Far East were amongst other areas on which we focused. Indeed, for some years we even sold and operated a selection of holidays known as ‘Russian Nature Tours’, led by the eccentric Algirdas Knystautas – holidays that reached the parts that other holiday operators could not reach! … albeit sometimes using transport that was unacceptable, even by the standards of the time (the vehicle supplied in Lithuania which had a badly cracked windscreen and only two working gears being the final straw!). 

Other friends then joined the gang, amongst them Andy Clements (CEO of the British Trust for Ornithology from 2007 until December 2020), Tony Baker (long-time warden of RSPB Marshside) and Mark Cocker, prior to a career as acclaimed journalist, author and broadcaster, specialising in the environment, wildlife and conservation. The fledgling company’s passion for Himalayan natural history was becoming noticed, and before long Naturetrek was additionally running dedicated botanical treks in Nepal and Bhutan, led by such luminaries as Tony Schilling (the curator, at that time, of the RHS’s Wakehurst Place in Sussex who, in the 1960s, had created the National Botanic Gardens at Godaveri in Nepal) and Roy Lancaster, the much-loved early presenter of the BBC’s long-running series, Gardener’s World.

One key figure in Naturetrek’s development was not a tour leader. It was David’s dad. From the start, this taxation commissioner, accountant and tax specialist, took on the role of unsalaried proof-reader, book-keeper, financial adviser and general dogsbody – a loyal and meticulous servant of the company, always setting the highest of standards. His contribution for over 10 years was a godsend … and the standards he set remain aspired to today.

During this time, the company’s long-haul offerings were long indeed. Tours or treks of 24 or even 28 days would be taken by our clients as their primary annual holiday. But times were changing, a new generation of customers was looking for shorter and more frequent adventures overseas. So, taking advantage of some very cheap long-haul flights (then unencumbered by the exorbitant taxes that so inflate the cost of air travel today), the most active of birders were tempted with Naturetrek’s new ‘990s’  – a programme of locally-led, action-packed, all-inclusive long-haul holidays to some of the world’s top birding destinations for just £990! These holidays are still fondly remembered by many birders today.

The ’Naturetrek 990s’ also saw two pioneering new developments. First, David and Maryanne were determined to see Naturetrek holidays led by local naturalists … and in Nepal they had become friends with the very best. When David first led a tour (for Exodus) that included a stay at Gaida Wildlife Lodge in April 1984, two local boys impressed him. Both teenagers were Gaida staff members. One, Hem Sagar Baral, was a trainee naturalist guide; the other, Tika Ram Giri, was a ‘kitchen boy’ with no formal education. In due course, Hem, was to go on to a university degree, a PhD, and to become Nepal’s foremost conservationist – the CEO, first, of BirdLife Nepal, then of Himalayan Nature, and now ZSL’s country representative in Nepal. Tika, meanwhile, was to become Nepal’s most experienced and knowledgeable field ornithologist and naturalist, as well as the country’s top wildlife guide, leading more Naturetrek holidays than any other Naturetrek tour leader. They remain amongst David’s and Maryanne’s most cherished and longstanding friends today.

It was with the enthusiasm and commitment of Hem and Tika, and of two other budding young naturalists named Suchit Basnet and Hathan Chaudhary, and the financial backing of David and Maryanne, that the second pioneering development of this period was possible. From the time of his first visit to the fabulous Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve in 1981, when he camped in a derelict watchtower and enjoyed the incredible birdlife and special mammals of this extensive and unique wetland reserve, David had dreamed of one day creating a wildlife lodge and a bird observatory at Koshi. So it was that, in 1993, this Nepalese-British-Australian partnership established Nepal’s first ever specialist wildlife ‘lodge’ away from Chitwan and Bardia National Parks, to accommodate not just a couple of hundred Naturetrek wildlife enthusiasts each year (most of them on our ‘Naturetrek 990s’), but also the groups of other specialist birding and wildlife tour operators from around the world. Koshi Camp (now a comfortable permanent tented camp offering private facilities) was re-established in 1999, with a mini-nature reserve of eight acres created around it from paddyfields adjacent to the reserve, and in 2008 a second wildlife ‘camp’ was established in the remote Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in western Nepal. To this day, both remain primarily the exclusive preserve of Naturetrek customers and the only tourist-standard properties servicing these two very special reserves – the latter providing us with what can seem to be our own private Tiger reserve!  As for that Koshi Bird Observatory that David had first dreamed of in 1981, this became a reality in 2011 through the determination of Dr Hem Sagar Baral, whilst CEO of Himalayan Nature, and with the support of Naturetrek and donations from a number of Naturetrek clients. In the days when virtually every British-operated overseas adventure, trekking and wildlife tour group was led by a British tour leader, Hem and Tika were amongst the very first expert local guides to become fully-fledged Naturetrek tour leaders. Others, such as Negussie Toye in Ethiopia, Willy Perez and Byron Palacios in Ecuador, Alexis Sanchez in Panama, Lelis Navarette and Jose Antonio Padilla in Peru and Ecuador, followed in their footsteps … Naturetrek forging way ahead in employing and training talented local naturalists to escort groups of British customers (and in so doing reducing carbon footprint) – a practice now commonplace amongst all tour operators. 


Tika Ram Giri, 2020


Koshi Camp (Sara Frost)

Nepal was Naturetrek’s top-selling destination through the 1990s, and we simultaneously pioneered the first-ever Tiger tours as we found ways in which to obtain regular sightings of a hitherto shy, elusive and unhabituated mammal. Indeed our ‘Just Tigers!’ holiday, still as popular as ever today, was the first-ever tour to India from overseas with an exclusive focus on Tigers, and a sightings success rate of 100% was achieved through very careful planning and use of the very best guides and leaders. We went on to pioneer the first-ever holidays to enable the reliable sighting and watching of European Brown Bears (in Finland), Wolves and Iberian Lynx (in Spain), and many others.

Until this time, David and Maryanne had been assisted nobly in their office-cum-home by neighbours, relatives and birdwatching friends. Volunteers and part-timers alike. But, by 1994, Maryanne’s dining and sitting rooms were becoming buried beneath David’s papers and brochures (she’ll say nothing has changed today!) and, worse, the number of Amstrads was on the rise. It was time for a full-time employee and a proper office. A room was duly rented in ‘The Cadcam Centre’, the converted dairy of what had previously, and much more fittingly, been known as ‘Woodlark Farm’, just a hundred yards from David and Maryanne’s house in Bighton. Debbie Ward, a friend of David’s family in nearby Bentworth, had recently returned from a period of extended travels in Australia and elsewhere and became Naturetrek’s first full-time employee, her secretarial background and meticulous attention to detail a bonus for the next 15 years, and still today. Joining the team then, during school and then university holidays at least, was Guy Thompson. David, who was forever bumping into a teenaged Thompson at nearby Alresford Pond where they both enjoyed their birding, had been quick to offer part-time work to this able and talented student who would ultimately go on to become Chief Operating Officer at English Nature (on the back of the training he received at Naturetrek, we always presumed!).

It was to this first office that today’s company stalwarts, Paul Stanbury (1996), Gini Whitlock (1997) and Andy Tucker (1998), found their way. David desperately needed help from some young heads. The new Dell computers that had usurped the Amstrads were causing him strife – not to mention the new-fangled printers, emails and a fax machine that were now muscling their way in … and Paul’s and Andy’s experience of North and South America, respectively, enabled a broadening of Naturetrek’s horizons.

In those pre-internet days, marketing was delightfully straightforward. An annual brochure was essential, perhaps a newsletter or two, plus the necessary magazine advertising, while any Naturetrek coverage in a weekend travel supplement would generate an avalanche of messages on the answerphone by Monday morning. Always enjoyed, the Rutland Birdfair provided a wonderful opportunity to meet both existing and prospective customers alike, and annual outings to present slideshows in such cities as Chester, Oxford, Winchester and York were (and still are) always capped with a curry (all the better if Nepalese!). Everything was relatively easy to track, making marketing analysis simple. One thing hasn’t changed though. In those early days Naturetrek benefitted enormously from word-of-mouth recommendations. It continues to do so, and the company is indebted to the many magnificent ‘Naturetrek ambassadors’ amongst you!

Beyond the Millenium (1997-2021)

In the mid-to-late 1990s the internet entered the fray, with Naturetrek’s first rudimentary website emerging in 1997. At the time we thought that less than 5% of Naturetrek clients were online. How times have changed! Naturetrek made two acquisitions; of Cygnus Wildlife Holidays in 1997, whose manager, Paul Dukes, also joined Naturetrek, and of Inverness-based Caledonian Wildlife in the same year. Clients and tour leaders from both of those companies still travel with us today.

In August 1999 Naturetrek moved from Bighton to a delightful centuries-old watermill over a tributary of the River Itchen in nearby Cheriton – a wonderful location which, with its delightful Water Voles, Barn Owls and regular nesting Spotted Flycatchers, was to become our happy home for the next 15 years (1999 to 2014). It had its difficulties; one year the office was swamped with flood water and not a winter passed by without a small rodent (or several!) perishing behind the plasterboard and emitting a foul stench. It was here that Maryanne introduced the monthly Naturetrek Open Day to allow both current and potential customers the opportunity to enjoy our surroundings with us on wildlife walks, as well as to take coffee and Maryanne’s homemade cakes (lemon drizzle being a particular favourite) while chatting to our wildlife experts. Our summertime ‘moths & sausages’ events linger in the memory, as well as a visiting Red-backed Shrike and heavenly dips in the crystal clear, cooling waters of the chalk stream following a lunchtime or after-work run. Many an interview and meeting was conducted in the quaint, thatched Tichborne Arms, just along the road.


Cheriton Mill


Kingfisher, a regular sight at Cheriton Mill


Cheriton Mill

The new millennium dawned and, in 2000, Naturetrek became one of the very first tour operators to encourage its clients to offset carbon emissions, leading to the creation of our fabulous Naturetrek cloud forest reserve in Ecuador. During the 20+ years that have followed, by making contributions out of our profits as well as through donations from our clients, we’ve gradually grown our reserve to over 1,600 acres in size, and species that are brand new to science have been discovered within it. We even now have an official ‘Naturetrek frog’, Noblella naturetrekii, which calls our reserve home! This spectacular region of the Ecuadorian Andes is also home to some wonderful Andean wildlife, including Cock-of-the-Rock, the endangered Black-and-chestnut Eagle, Giant Antpitta, Spectacled Bear and Mountain Tapir. Our long-term goal is to create a fully protected wildlife corridor linking the Llanganates and Sangay National Parks; an area classed by WWF as one of the 200 most important wildlife corridors in the world due to its high levels of biodiversity.

Through the 2000s Naturetrek continued to grow steadily, despite the considerable and very different challenges posed by foot-and-mouth disease, 9/11, SARS and the invasion of Iraq. In 2003, the Naturetrek brochure, until then a black-and-white tome illustrated with line drawings, many of them drawn by David himself, became the first brochure of any British wildlife tour operator to be produced in full colour, the drawings finally replaced by photographs. The mid-2000s now brought a time in which the Pound was very strong and long-haul travel particularly affordable. Quality digital camera equipment came to the fore and revolutionised wildlife photography and indeed the focus of many of our clients. In 2006 we took a full-ship charter to Spitsbergen to celebrate our 20th anniversary – a memorable voyage, on which we enjoyed sightings of 57 Polar Bears! – a remarkable record unsurpassed to this day. Two years later, the financial crash of 2008 heralded a 4-year hiatus in Naturetrek’s growth, a new-fangled concept called ‘social media’ required investigation and investment, and the Icelandic ash cloud of 2010, caused by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in mid-April, landed us with a major logistical challenge in repatriating over 100 stranded clients and tour leaders at the height of the spring European season!

In 2011 we block-booked both of the magnificent Tiger Tops’ properties in Chitwan National Park, Nepal, to celebrate our 25th anniversary and, in so doing, underlined David and Maryanne’s long-standing love affair with Nepal. The rest of the decade saw a return to steady growth. Jaguar tourism in the Pantanal flourished in particular, as did our unrivalled range of full-boat charters to some of the world’s most exciting and pristine locations, including Antarctica, Raja Ampat, the Maldives, Canada’s north-west and Kamchatka. 


Naturetrek 25th Anniversary group, Tiger Tops, Chitwan, Nepal, 2011 (David Allison)

In 2013 we launched Naturetrek Tailormade, which formalised what we’d always been only too happy to do upon request – to expertly craft bespoke birding and wildlife holidays around the globe.

We eventually outgrew our lovely watermill in Cheriton in 2014 and, in December of that year, moved 12 miles east to a stunning barn conversion in Jane Austen’s village of Chawton, near Alton, where we remain happily to this day. For an office full of naturalists it is well-positioned, with carefully-managed farmland and woodland habitat on our doorstep to explore. Lunchtime walks have produced plenty of excitement over the years with migrants including Pied Flycatcher, Black Redstart, Whinchat, Wheatear and Hobby. Star mammals include Water Shrew, Harvest and Yellow-necked Mouse and a great range of butterflies have been found with the highlight being the confirmation of a new breeding site for the beautiful Brown Hairstreak. Our feeding station, just outside the kitchen window, is teeming with birds in the winter with Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Nuthatch, Marsh Tit and often Brambling in with the Chaffinches. We have regular office evacuations – always for wildlife! The shout of “Barn Owl” causes a mass exodus to watch these wonderful birds patrolling our fields, while our most famous residents must be the Little Owls, who have successfully bred in our box for the last two years and rearing three young each time! To further enhance our site for wildlife, we embarked on an ambitious rewilding project across our 12-acre grassland site. In early 2020, we began work to enhance an existing pond, creating a wildlife haven with a bog garden and habitat for butterflies. Once plans resumed after lockdown, we got the pond lined and it slowly filled, and it is now home to dragonflies, snails, beetles, newts and frogs! We have also uncovered a section of chalk in our field, and are monitoring it for the arrival of native chalk grassland species. Some of our other initiatives include installing owl boxes, tree-planting, building a bug hotel, planting extensive native hedging and creating a ‘bat garden’. We welcome you to come and visit our Naturetrek Reserve (which is at its best in spring and summer) on one of our Opens Days, or by arranging a private visit, so we can share our wonderful local wildlife with you!


Mingledown Barn Office, Chawton


Little Owl Chicks


Staff Re-wilding the Office Pond

For our 30th anniversary in 2016, we took a full-boat charter to Antarctica, our group of keen naturalists enjoying sightings of over 1,000 great whales and much other wildlife, the seminal and breath-taking 2017 series Blue Planet II later reminding us all of the fragility of life in the world’s oceans. We also returned to the French Pyrenees in celebration of our 30th anniversary, taking over the same village hotel in Gedre that David and Maryanne had discovered back in 1991 (and used ever since) for two weeks, introducing a new generation of Naturetrek clients (and re-introducing some of the old ones!) to Lammergeiers, Chamois and the Cirque de Gavarnie. 


Naturetrek 30th Anniversary group, French Pyrennees, 2016

2020 panned out in a way that absolutely none of us could have predicted with the Covid-19 crisis undoubtedly the biggest challenge the travel industry has ever faced. With international travel limited to just a tiny handful of countries, and the rapid changing of Governmental travel guidelines undermining consumer confidence, income plummeted and it was a challenge to maintain morale. Our focus throughout was on doing the right thing by our customers, maintaining contact through interesting newsletters, emails, online webinars and virtual tours (it was amazing during the dark days of lockdown to be able to transport several hundred people at a time live to the cloudforests of north-west Ecuador or the Canopy Tower in Panama!) and on rolling out a successful series of day trips, which were so warmly welcomed and praised by you, our clients, since the first one in early July 2020. These were such strange times, with important staff meetings being chaired from home offices, kitchens or back bedrooms, with children and even pets putting in occasional unintentional appearances!

Business After Covid (2022-present)

By late 2022, despite there being further challenges to overcome due to the staff shortages in the travel industry at airports, airlines and the UK passport office, the business was well and truly back on its feet. Our clients certainly rewarded us with their trust post-pandemic with record numbers of bookings being recorded in 2023. Thank you all!

In November 2023 we took the first step in an exciting new partnership when Tom Mills, the son of David and Maryanne and a Naturetrek director, signed off Naturetrek's purchase of the 120-acre 'Macchietelle estate' in the Italian Apennines from the Manna family. The family could not have been more supportive of our goal – to pass the land, by way of an initial 30-year stewardship agreement – to the Italian conservation charities Salviamo L’Orso (Save the Bear) and IntraMontes. Their first task was to apply, without delay, to the local authority to ban hunting from our new reserve and put in place a system of anti-poaching surveillance. David and Tom travelled out to explore the reserve in May 2024, together with our partners and friends at Salviamo L'Orso, Rewilding Appenines and Intramontes, and were delighted by sightings of numerous Wild Boar and Roe Deer, two Crested Porcupines, two Pine Martens, a Badger and a Wild Cat, the latter rarely encountered in the Appenines. There were also greeted by an Appenine Wolf on arrival – the first of five Wolf encounters during their week's stay!

It is our hope that the Naturetrek Macchietelle Reserve will support Salviamo L’Orso’s goal of building protected corridors between the two national parks and three regional parks/reserves of the Apennines, and to extend all these protected areas for the benefit of the endangered Marsican Brown Bear (Ursus arctos marsicanus), a distinctive subspecies of which just 60 individuals remain. Indeed, it is now David and Maryanne’s wish that such projects become the primary target for Naturetrek support and investment. In these fast-changing times, our support for nature restoration and conservation is imperative, and we intend to use our profits to purchase land to be managed by wildlife and conservation charities for the benefit of our natural world. Watch this space! It should be an exciting one.


Tom Mills signing of Naturetrek's purchase of the Macchietelle estate


Tom Mills and the Manna family


David and Tom Mills exploring the reserve with our partners, May 2024

Gone but not Forgotten

Sadly, some of those who have played a part in the Naturetrek story over the years are no longer with us. The following will forever be fondly remembered by those of us at Naturetrek:

Tony Smith

Michael Chandler

Peter Dunn

Julian Gayarre

Graham Hearl

Trevor James

Harold Mills

Mike Mullin

Roy Taylor

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Mohamed Zaki