Alumni of the Month June 2007

Grace and Paul Yoxon (1979)

aom_Yoxon 1. How did you get to where you are now?

Grace and I met at Keele when we were doing Geology.  We came to Skye in our final year field trip (1979) and stayed near Broadford.  When we were getting married we decided we wanted to live in the Highlands, preferably on Skye – we didn’t know then we would be living so close to where we first came or what we would be doing!

2. What has been your biggest achievement so far?

Setting up the International Otter Survival Fund.  In 1985 we set up the Skye Environmental Centre as a registered charity to run wildlife holidays and courses and in 1988 we established a wildlife hospital.  In 1993 we decided we wanted to do more to help otters worldwide and so IOSF was born.  Now we have over 8,500 supporters worldwide and have projects in many countries including Bangladesh, Mexico, Spain and Belarus.

One of the biggest achievements of IOSF so far was helping to find surviving populations of the Hairy Nosed Otter in Thailand and Vietnam – this species was thought to be extinct in 1998.  I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Vietnam to see the fieldwork going on.

We have also organised two international conferences on Skye bringing together otter scientists from all over the world.  Not only was it wonderful to see so many people sharing information but all the delegates managed to watch wild otters – for some of these scientists the animal is so rare that they never actually see them in their natural environment.

3. And your biggest mistake?

Employing people who were not suited to the job.  It is not a particular skill of mine to be an employer and if people “seem” nice and interested, I take this as true and it isn’t always the case.  We have made mistakes in the past but now we are fortunate enough to have people dedicated to what we do.

4. What are your ambitions now?

I enjoy running IOSF and so far it has already given me some excellent opportunities to travel.  I have visited Russia, Belarus, Vietnam and Taiwan and this October I will be attending the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Otter Specialist’s Group meeting in Korea.  I would like to develop IOSF further especially in Africa, where population numbers of some species of otter, like the Congo Clawless, are totally unknown.  I would also like to travel more and get people working together in otter and general conservation – there is far too much arguing which holds back progress.

5. What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in a similar field?

It isn’t easy getting a job in conservation and it certainly isn’t all glamour running your own charity.  Many people think we spend all day either caring for orphaned otters or watching them in the wild.  What they don’t see is the hours spent in front of a computer, the endless fundraising and dealing with the aggressive adult otters when they are ready for release – we rear the orphans so that they are not tame so that they can be released back to the wild, but it can be a daunting prospect catching them when the time comes!

Whatever job you go for, do it to the best of your ability.  I am very stubborn and if something needs doing I will do my utmost to ensure it is done and done well.  It doesn’t matter if people say it is impossible – that almost makes it a compulsory challenge!

6. What made you choose Keele University?

Both Grace and I loved the fact that Keele is a campus university and has so much countryside around.  I know it is very different to where we now live on Skye but it is a wonderful place to study.  Keele had an excellent reputation for Geology which was what I really wanted to do.

7. How has Keele influenced your life?

Keele really taught me to be independent and to have a mind of my own.  It taught me how to find things out for myself and this has proved so vital in what we do now.  We don’t have access to libraries here but that is no excuse for not knowing - the answer is out there somewhere to whatever question you need to ask and you just need to go and find it.

I spent 7 years doing a part-time PhD on otter ecology with the Open University and this has helped a lot with our work – I am sure the way we were taught to learn without being spoon-fed helped me to do this. 

Obviously the fact that Grace and I met at Keele had a great influence on my life and if it hadn’t been for the final year geology field trip to Skye we would never have been here at all.

8. What is your favourite memory of Keele?

I spent three happy years at Keele and so I could put many things here;  many memorable concerts in the Students’ Union, the walk from Hawthorns to the Geology Department, the geology field trips we had – the Cotswolds, the French/Italian alps and of course Skye!

9. And your worst?

My best friend, Ian Harmer, was killed in a motorcycle accident on the campus road to Hawthorns.  We had plans to develop a business ourselves working in outdoor pursuits and environmental education but this was never to be.  I hope he would be proud of what we do now.

10. Anything else you would like to add?

I think it is a real shame the way Keele has suffered so badly under the various financial cuts.  It is a great university and Grace always goes on about how much she enjoyed the Foundation Year.  I never did it but I think it was a wonderful opportunity to find out about so many different subjects.

And finally, if anyone is interested in otters and what we do, here is a plug for our website:  www.otter.org