People Profile: Going Wild

Connie Smith, Animal Conservationist

My name is Connie Smith and I live in Cranleigh. I formed ‘Wild About Britain’ in 2022 as an enterprise which offers education opportunities and animal encounters promoting our fantastic British wildlife and the importance of their conservation.

Since I can remember, I have always wanted to work with animals. British wildlife is a huge passion of mine and my love of nature and the outdoors has been with me throughout my life providing many exciting and unexpected encounters as I was growing up. One of my earliest memories of British wildlife was when my dad produced a huge female grass snake out of his rucksack which he had found whilst out on his bike ride over Norbury Park and taken home to show us. I distinctly remember him having to retrieve her from underneath my wardrobe before taking her back to where she was found to release her safely.

Although I loved discovering wildlife in my own garden, some of my fondest memories are of my visits to a small area of local heathland after discovering it contained all six native species of reptile. It is my favourite place in the world and I still visit regularly. My dad and I had already seen plenty of grass snakes, adders, slow worms and common lizards, but somewhere that contained those four as well as our two rarest species, the sand lizard and smooth snake, was an absolute goldmine! On one occasion I remember him lifting up a small piece of bark to reveal the most perfect baby smooth snake and I was in such awe because of its rarity. These are strictly protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 making it illegal to purposefully disturb or harm them or their habitat, but it was wonderful to see.

Myself having just turned 7 years old on holiday in Dorset holding a big grass snake that we found under some logs and metal from old machinery at the farm we stayed in

We never did spot sand lizards, Britain’s rarest lizard, at that heathland patch. The first time I finally saw one was at Frensham Ponds. After hours of searching to no avail, we sat on a sandy path and within minutes were lucky to see a stunning adult male right beside us. You couldn’t miss him, his flanks were strikingly green like a jewel amongst the heather. He didn’t mind us spectating as he was preoccupied by two adult females, circling them in a courtship display. It was a busy day at Frensham Ponds, with families making use of the sandy beach and dog walkers passing us. I couldn’t help but wonder why nobody else seemed aware of these stunning and endangered lizards that were within metres of them.

Days spent searching for reptiles, listening to the chattering songs of Dartford warblers and melodious warbles of woodlark, often ended at dusk with us finding a spot to sit and wait for nightjars. Their call is otherworldly, a churring sound that sometimes tapers off in a mechanical whirl as if they’ve run out of battery. They are a truly fascinating creature and to this day, I will still say this is my favourite animal. I am not ashamed to admit that when I stumbled across a pair of very fluffy newly hatched nightjar chicks a few years ago amongst the heather during one of my reptile surveys, it brought me to tears!

Me at 16yrs old with a harris hawk
Orphaned mice

So, it is not just reptiles that I adore, birds are a huge passion of mine too. My love of falconry developed after reading my favourite book, My Side of the Mountain, about a boy who ran away from home to live in the Catskill Mountains accompanied by his peregrine falcon. That story inspired me to wonder what it would be like to experience life alongside my own falcon and so I learned everything I could about falconry through the internet and books. My obsession even led me to take a shoelace to school for practising the falconry knot on the leg of the school desk during lesson times! When I turned 16 my mum located a nearby bird of prey centre in Dorking where I could volunteer, and the owner became my mentor who taught me everything I needed to know about the welfare and handling of these amazing birds. I was completely captivated by the world of falconry and the incredibly unique relationship you could build when you earned the trust of a wild raptor. I rehomed my first bird of prey, Freddie the tawny owl, a few years after this – he was actually a surprise for me organised between my parents and my falconry mentor!

My favourite book
Myself and Bob the kestrel at a school Christmas fair

Within days of me turning 16 I also began regular volunteering for a large wildlife rehabilitation centre. Despite my young age, I quickly gained respect from my fellow volunteers with my ability to easily identify bird species, even as tiny hatchlings, and to recommend the correct diet and eventual habitat for release of the more unusual species such as blackcap, whitethroat and woodcock. I absolutely loved being able to share my passion and experience with like minded people, and this is where I discovered that my knowledge of British wildlife was actually of value and stood me in good stead for my future career. One of my roles here was as ‘specialist orphan mouse feeder’ which entailed taking home any orphaned mice in order to provide them with constant feeds of milk formula every 1-2hrs through day and night. I achieved an excellent survival rate even for newborn ‘pinkies’ which is quite an achievement as they are notoriously tricky. I was so dedicated to their care that there were times I had to take them to school with me. Of course, this would not have been permitted by the teachers, so I would put their little carrier in a large bag alongside all their feeding apparatus and put a jumper on the top to muffle the sound of their squeaks during lesson times! 

A great snap of Freddie the tawny owl and I taken by a client in their garden during a family wildlife experience

Fast forward a few years, and I met my partner at university, both of us studying animal related degrees. I had a clear vision of a future career working in wildlife conservation, but my circumstances drastically changed when we had our baby boy Sidney which meant temporarily moving in with my grandmother. After a few years my partner, myself and our son moved to Cranleigh to our first family home, but it was proving impossible to find a career with animals that worked around childcare. I was led down a temporary career path in domiciliary care work for four years. I loved caring for my clients, but I found it very emotionally difficult too. One of my highlights was taking Freddie, my tawny owl, out to see a client who was bed bound and had been feeling very low. Seeing his face light up with joy, just by being in the presence of an owl, was truly magical. This formed the spark of an idea about how I could formulate an experience-based business connecting people with the delights of nature and British wildlife.

Sidney with Freddie
A visit to Farncombe Day Centre with Freddie

In the meantime I got my license to survey our protected UK reptiles to aid in their conservation.Little Sidney accompanied me to many of my wild reptile surveys including Witley, Ockham, Blackheath, Hurtwood, Box Hill, Thursley and Frensham. Before he could even walk he had been amongst all six native reptiles, plenty of birds of prey, and had some very close encounters with nightjars and other heathland birds! When he was learning to talk, we would go through the names of different bird species in his bird book. At 2yrs old he was accurately pointing out wild buzzards, and at 3yrs old he could recognise the call of a chiffchaff! His pure joy for the natural world inspired us daily to appreciate every facet of nature. I have loved raising our little wild child and witnessing first-hand the incredible effect that animals can have on children.

As Sidney got older it became very apparent to me that most children had little to no knowledge or appreciation of the wildlife around them. Some older children couldn’t even tell the difference between a blackbird and a crow, and many did not have an awareness of the precious wildlife on their own doorstep. Many of my friends and colleagues have discussed their new found appreciation of native animals since meeting me, and their developing passion has influenced others they know causing a ripple effect of love for British wildlife. That is music to my ears!

Setting up for a local fair

So all these little pieces were beginning to come together, and I began to think maybe I could create my own career based on my passion. As one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, with the vast majority of our animals in huge decline in this time of global conservation concern, it really has never been so important for people to connect back with nature. So how could I bring awareness to threatened native species in a way that will truly spark an interest, make an impact and be memorable to people of all ages? I knew I got that magical reaction and engagement from people when they met Freddie the tawny owl, and that was what I needed to capture again so that people could make that connection between the animal and the real issues they are facing in the wild. There is a quote by David Attenborough, “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced”. I could provide that opportunity for people to experience these elusive and threatened animals that they would otherwise be unlikely to see or care about saving.

With much support from my family, Wild About Britain was born in the late summer of 2022. I now keep an ever growing collection of captive bred and ethically sourced British native species in outdoor naturalistic enclosures, with many trained to be ambassadors in order to accompany me on educational sessions. When I was a child experiencing that wonderful encounter with a rare smooth snake, I am now so privileged to be able to provide that experience to thousands of other people with my own smooth snakes. When I had that dream of living my life with a falcon, that is now my reality with my most wonderful flying partner, Bob the kestrel. Wild About Britain has visited country fairs and village fetes, care and nursing homes, nurseries and schools, one-to-one encounters, guiding and scouting groups, corporate events, birthday parties, home education groups, and all sorts of centres and clubs. At all of these events I raise awareness of threatened British species, why they are of conservation concern, and how we can help.

An outdoor lizard enclosure

My contribution to conservation is not just about educating and raising awareness that comes through the sessions I offer. Wild About Britain also gives me the flexibility and support to carry out regular voluntary work in the form of bird of prey surveys, sand lizard test burrow surveys, widespread and rare reptile surveys and wildlife rehabilitation, all of which is so important for the conservation of native wildlife. I also hope to become involved in captive breeding programmes for release in the future, with a main goal of one day breeding smooth snakes in collaboration with a conservation group for the purpose of release programmes.

Teaching about wildlife

There have certainly been some low points. Some of the reptile and amphibian species I keep have proved incredibly challenging in captivity and of course with the ever increasing cost of living, some months I have felt like this will not be sustainable for me as a career. However, the highs have been amazing. From successful captive breeding of various threatened species, having the most incredible moments of spectacular flight from Bob the kestrel, and being filmed for TV. But nothing beats being able to witness first hand the amazement that my animal ambassadors have brought to so many people of all ages, and inspiring the next generation of wildlife lovers.

For further information or to book please visit: or contact:

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

Leave a reply

Cranleigh Magazine