Frustrated by the inability to make a difference through conventional climate activism, Sally Phillips has decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I’m not your usual entrepreneur!” remarks Sally Phillips. “I tend to shun the limelight. I had imposter syndrome for years. But if you look at what I’ve achieved so far, I guess I can accept being called an entrepreneur now.”

A passionate environmentalist for the last 4 decades, Phillips entered the business world relatively late in life, at the age of 42. She had been working as an ecologist specialising in bat and owl surveys. As part of her job she operated the Bat Helpline for Natural England. “No, it wasn’t for distressed bats!” she joked. “Distressed householders, with bats in their home.” I took so many calls from people who had a bat flying around the house, that can only have got in through the chimney. This started a weird obsession with ducking down to look up chimneys at any opportunity. I became aware of just how many open chimneys there are. It’s literally like leaving a window wide open all the time, and a dreadful waste of energy and money”.

Phillips set about developing a chimney plug. Living in Cumbria, there was an abundance of wool. She experimented with a range of wool types until she developed the Chimney Sheep® made of wiry Herdwick wool. “It’s deliberately simple,” she explained. “The easier something is to use and understand, the more likely it is that it will be used.” She developed a prototype and from there created a marketable product. It is patented and the name Chimney Sheep®(what else would you call it?) is a registered trademark.

Self-funded from the start, the business has grown steadily over the years to a £2 million turnover enterprise. The business has grown to be a brand for sustainable solutions. “I take it as a compliment that our product is being copied” stated Phillips. “It’s patent protected in this country but not overseas. But it’s a reminder that we can’t grow a business on one product only, so I’ve developed Chimney Sheep into a brand for a range of innovative sustainable products”.

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So how did she come about buying a mountain? “When you worry about the environment, there is such a lot to worry about, both nationally and internationally. You can’t do anything about most of these things, but planting trees in your corner of the planet helps to make things better. Trees capture carbon, increase biodiversity, and reduce flooding. I eventually acquired a 7 acre site near Bassenthwaite, and my partner and I quickly went about filling this with trees.

Planting trees isn’t as much fun as it sounds, after the first dozen or so. It’s hard work, usually cold and muddy. After planting several thousand trees, and enjoying watching them grow, my next worry was what would happen to them when I wasn’t around anymore?

Back to the bats, the only reason they moved into houses in the first place was because there weren’t enough veteran trees for them to roost in. I wanted the trees we had planted to last 400 years into the future, to be big gnarly things full of crevices for all kinds of wildlife. I thought my son might keep it going but after that? Descendants can be unreliable things. So I set up a Community Interest Company. The constitution sets out our wishes for the land over the long term. The land is asset locked, so it cannot be sold on for anything other than its current use, and profits remain within the CIC, so it can’t be sold for personal profit.

I’ve invested a quarter of a million pounds into it so far which I suppose could have been paid to the CEO and spent on some luxury items. But I would have spent it on land and trees anyway so this way it offers some more guarantee for the future. I pondered a long time over what to call it but Buy Land Plant Trees seemed appropriate. It doesn’t require much explaining.”

Phillips then acquired a 13 acre site in the Lake District, had that planted with 25,000 trees, then
moved on to the next project, Low Fell. “Yes, it’s a whole mountain! Quite a small one, but it’s a Lake District Wainwright summit”. 160 acres of bracken, acid soil, blanket bog, heather and bilberry. And extremely steep terrain. Always the innovator, Phillips is going about having the site planted without traditional tubes and stakes or bracken management.

“It’s not about filling it with wall to wall trees, but creating a natural mosaic of habitat types. We plant a mix of species in dense clusters without tubes or stakes. It’s how nature plants them and doesn’t feel that innovative really but there is a lot of interest in how we are doing it.”

What motivates Phillips to dedicate her money and energy to such an undertaking?

“For years and years I signed petitions, went on demonstrations, donated money, wrote to politicians, went to meetings and talked to like-minded people with whom I did more climate actions but it never felt like I was achieving anything. This way, I can circumvent the politicians and the policy makers and just get on with things. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to develop an energy saving product which I can sell to make money to help make a difference to the environment. It’s pretty gratifying really. It would be lovely if the politicians sorted it all out. But that’s not going to happen, so I might as well carry on doing what I can as best I can.”