Norfolk farm disaster expert turns to crime writing
- Credit: John Thomson
After a career responding to international agricultural emergencies from radioactive fallout to bird flu, Heather Peck is now reaping a harvest of countryside crime novels.
Heather, of Ormesby St Margaret, near Hemsby, spent decades writing legislation, rules and regulations and ministerial speeches, but only began publishing fiction last year.
Her career in farming – both on the ground rearing calves, sheep and alpaca, and at the heart of government – is key to her fiction. Her backdrops are neither the gritty urban settings of many crime novels, or the cosy rural villages beloved of murder mysteries but feature domestic abuse, modern slavery and animal cruelty.
For much of her career Heather was a civil servant with the Ministry of Agriculture, which became the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
By 1986 she was head of Britain's food emergencies unit and helping deal with the impact of the Chernobyl disaster – including monitoring sheep contaminated with radioactive caesium.
In the wake of the 2001 foot and mouth disaster a new emergency role was created. “In the event of an outbreak of a notifiable disease someone would get a phone call (usually on the Sunday evening of a bank holiday weekend and usually me) and be told to drop everything and go manage the emergency,” said Heather. She was the regional emergency response expert for every bird flu outbreak in England between 2005 and 2008.
But it was not all doom and disasters. Heather’s food safety career included a stint being paid to eat chocolate at Rowntree Nestle.
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She was also an agricultural policy adviser, representing the UK in international negotiations and helping draft legislation on pesticide control, GM crops, food safety, gang-master licensing and animal welfare. “I think my most significant contribution to the Sea Fish Industries Act was to advise the legal team that they had drawn the definition of fish so widely that it would include wood lice!” she said.
She was not born into a farming family but bought land to set up a small farm with her first husband and reared calves and sheep, and later alpacas too. “I blame multiple family holidays on farms for my lifelong fascination with agriculture,” she said. “My original ambition was to be a vet and to work with livestock.”
Her writing career began after she moved to Norfolk and got involved in village life in Ormesby St Margaret, including writing a column based on the adventures of her dogs for the parish newsletter. Praise from friends and neighbours helped inspire her to take a crime writing course at Norwich’s National Centre for Writing.
“The feedback from the course, from both tutor and fellow course members, was positive. So I thought, ‘If not now, when?’” said 67-year-old Heather.
Her first novel, Secret Places, introduced police detective Greg Geldard and a crime which took him from Yorkshire to the Norfolk Broads. The second, Glass Arrows, set organised crime, modern slavery, murder and menace amid the rural beauty and was shortlisted for the 2021 East Anglian Book Awards fiction prize.
Her latest novel is Fires of Hate. By now Greg is a Norfolk detective chief inspector investigating a terrorism plot linking a government laboratory and animal welfare.
“Each of the books can be read as a stand-alone, but also builds into a story of one man’s fight to do the best he can,” said Heather, who is working on her fourth novel – inspired by a conversation with a fellow member of the Bure to Yare Benefice choir.
“I set my books in the rural world because I want to share its wonders, peculiarities and hilarious moments with people who may not have been privileged to see it as I have seen it,” said Heather. “But I wrote these three specific stories because each uncovers problems that are probably hidden to most of us and about which I care passionately.”
When her research took her to the public gallery of Norwich Crown Court, she became a volunteer with the Witness Service at Great Yarmouth Magistrates Court, looking after people called as witnesses in court cases.
She is also a volunteer and trustee with Norfolk Citizens Advice. “I do it because it’s both fulfilling and stimulating,” she said. “People come in with so many different problems - family, employment, housing, money, health etc. Sometimes they are distressed, sometimes angry, but it’s always good to help them find a way forward.”
She has served as a non-executive director, and then chairman, of a Cambridge NHS Trust and as a director of Norfolk Community Health and Care NHS Trust. “Like most people in this country, my family have benefitted from the NHS and I wanted to give something back,” said Heather.
During the pandemic she became a vaccinator too. “When volunteers were called for, it occurred to me that the crossover from sheep and alpacas to humans probably wouldn’t be too difficult,” said Heather. “And so it proved, although you do get more conversation with humans!”
Fires of Hate, by Heather Peck, is published Silverwood Books and is available in local and national book shops.