The bird woman of Downpatrick: Belinda Bennett on lifetime love of nature and her Asperger's syndrome diagnosis

Belinda Bennett appeared in the recent BBC series Mountain Vets, nursing an injured jackdaw back to health at her Co Down home. She tells Linda Stewart about her lifetime love of nature, her diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome later in life and how Chris Packham inspires her


Belinda Bennett from Downpatrick recently appeared on the BBC Mountain Vets programme

Belinda Bennett from Downpatrick recently appeared on the BBC Mountain Vets programme

Belinda Bennett from Downpatrick recently appeared on the BBC Mountain Vets programme

Belinda Bennett shares two key things with BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham - her lifelong love of nature and her diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome. And like the famous wildlife presenter, it wasn't until later in life that she was diagnosed with the condition, and something clicked into place.

"Everything started to make sense. I hadn't a clue about why I was struggling so much, even to get a job. The whole thing was crazy," she says.

Belinda, who appeared on the BBC's Mountain Vets series recently fostering an injured jackdaw on behalf of Downe Veterinary Clinic, reveals that she has struggled her whole life in her interactions with humans, yet found it easy to relate to animals.

"Animals are my friends," she says.

"When I was younger I could only relate to animals, I couldn't relate to humans. I wanted to interact with humans but I couldn't. I desperately wanted people to take notice of me."

It was only recently, when she was accompanying a younger family member on a visit to a counsellor, that she discovered the truth.

"I was taking a younger member of the family to get help because they were having a rough time, so I went along, not thinking much about it," she explains.

"I didn't think there was anything wrong with me, to tell you the truth. I didn't understand why I was so isolated from other humans. But as soon as this person saw me, she just knew I had Asperger's. It all makes sense now.

"It was a good thing that I found out because I couldn't understand what was going on. I was happy to find a label that fitted me because I didn't understand it and now I can read into it a lot more and understand it."

As she read up on the condition, she was fascinated to find an interview with wildlife presenter Chris Packham, who was only diagnosed with high functioning Asperger's syndrome in his 40s, but had experienced the effects of being "wired differently" throughout his life.


Belinda with her mother Hilda and Thomas

Belinda with her mother Hilda and Thomas


Belinda Bennett with her father Shane Murray and her sons Timothy, Thomas and Steven

Belinda Bennett with her father Shane Murray and her sons Timothy, Thomas and Steven


Belinda with her dogs Piper and Peaches

Belinda with her dogs Piper and Peaches

"When he talked about his childhood, I thought that was so like mine in many respects," Belinda says. "It was quite a revelation for me. I've been so busy with life and trying to survive in this world that I really didn't take much notice. I just kept going.

"It's quite a hard thing to live with if people don't understand the way you are. Everybody's different. For as many people as have Asperger's, they are all different.

"I feel as though I am on the outside looking in. From my early childhood that is the way I was all the time.

"When Chris Packham talked about himself, I saw a lot of connections. There were a lot of similarities in the way he felt when he was a child."

Belinda, who turns 70 this month, is now retired with three children and six grandchildren and lives a quarter of a mile from the farm where she grew up.

She describes her late father Torrens as a very clever man who hadn't had much schooling, but went straight into the Navy and worked his way up to captain during the Second World War.


Belinda with her pony Shrek

Belinda with her pony Shrek

Because her mum Hilda had studied German at school, she was drafted in as an officer in the Wrens.

"She was listening to U-boats, she would have been listening and translating and giving messages to Bletchley. But all that stuff was secret and we never heard about it at all," Belinda says.

"My father and mother were very supportive with me. If I hadn't had them, I would have been lost. They knew I was dyslexic, but they must have known there was something else. But they never talked about it. They sheltered me from bad news and things like that.

"When I was young I was the type of person that wouldn't want people to touch me. I sort of put the barriers up. It was very difficult for my mother - I didn't want to be touched by my mother. God help her, she was probably very upset about the whole thing," she admits.

Living on a busy working farm, Belinda was mostly cared for by her sister Diana, who now lives in Oregon.

"My sister looked after me as you'd look after a child. But it was more that she was the older one and she was always trying her best to make sure I was okay," she says.

Belinda struggled in school because she has dyslexia, which means she struggles with reading, and dyscalculia, a difficulty in understanding numbers.

"I loved learning, but I didn't like playtime. I couldn't cope because I couldn't play with anyone," she says.

What did help was the myriad of animals on the farm. Belinda has fond memories of her dad's springer Bonzo and the farm manager's boxer Bimbo.

"There were lots of cats, a lot of them were wild but we always had a farm cat. There were cats and dogs and we had donkeys and ponies when we were slightly older," she says.

"When I was working on the farm and having ponies and dogs, I was able to relate to them. I felt like an alien as far as humans were concerned. There must be a lot of people like me that have committed suicide or are in prison because they just can't cope."

At 17 Belinda went to Loughry Agricultural College, and says it was good for her because she learned to integrate with people.

"You have to live with people and work with animals as well, it was brilliant. It was a great start to after-school life," she says.

She went to Greenmount for a year, but disaster struck on the farm with an outbreak of brucellosis and the entire herd of more than 100 Friesians had to be destroyed.

Belinda says her dad had a bee in his bonnet about her becoming a nurse, so that was where her path next led her.

"It really wasn't my idea to be a nurse, as I didn't really know a lot about humans," she says. "I really wanted to work with animals, but in those days you were supposed to do what your parents told you. It was good for me, but I really hadn't a clue. Being a nurse is a very responsible job."

Belinda became an SRN in Jersey but missed her home: "I got married and I was pregnant and there wasn't much support out there, so I finished the SRN course and it was time to come home."

Once back in Co Down she worked for a while at the medical assessment unit in the hospital in Downpatrick, but gave it up when she became pregnant.

"I just couldn't manage with two babies. It was all too much for me," she says.

Later, following her divorce, she worked in Finnebrogue Garden Centre, but for most of her life she worked on the family farm: "We still had the family farm and I was always helping there, I never really stopped."

The family moved up the road to an out-farm in 1983, and Belinda continued to surround herself with animals.

"It was huge, ferrets and God knows what. There was always something," she laughs. "It was far too much, but it was because that's what I related to. People must have thought it was over the top."

These days she has two dogs, a springer spaniel which turned up at the door, and another dog, Peaches, which she took in after it had been looked after by the vet for a year, as well as a donkey and two ponies which are cared for by other family members.

"One is a reject from the shooters and this one just wanted a new home, from the vet - I've never bought a dog in my life!"

Naturally there have been a lot of visits to the vet over the years, with everything from dogs and cats to ponies, donkeys, pigs and goats, which is why Belinda has forged a relationship with the practice and was able to foster the injured jackdaw featured in the Mountain Vets programme.

"I've taken a hedgehog to the vet, birds, of course, masses of hens, goats, pigs, sheep," she says. "They called me and asked me to come and get this bird, they had a bird that needed a home. It's because I live with birds and feed the jackdaws in the wintertime.

"Where I lived before I lived here, I was surrounded by big trees and jackdaws in both places. I've always had jackdaws, because I had lots of dogs and the jackdaws were going to be eaten.

"The jackdaws come down to see me in the morning. There is plenty of supply in springtime of birds that fall out of the nest far too young, so I just lift them back up. You are meant to leave them, but the problem here is that there are too many dogs, so I try to put them up again.

"One morning last springtime one had fallen out of the nest and I found it under the canopy of a little doll's house that someone had finished with. I managed to get it back in the nest safely. I went to check on it later and it was all right."

A number of dogs have been dumped on the road where Belinda lives and ended up joining the household. "Quite a few have come off the road and stayed here until their days are finished," she says.

"At one point it was one a week, and that was just the way it was at the time. My aunt, every time she came in, there was another one lying in here, she was amused by it."

One of the main things that has helped Belinda to cope is her search for God.

"If you are left out all the time, you begin to feel rejection. In order to survive my condition, of feeling out of things, it's probably why I was so keen to find God," she says.

"I've wanted to find God since I was a young child but in the Church of Ireland they didn't spell it out clearly enough for me to understand. Sometimes you are blind and deaf for a reason, because you're not ready.

"I started going to places that were more about how to find God when I was about 28, then I went to so many things I can't count them. I am not a Protestant or a Catholic, I am a believer in the Trinity, and you don't have to be a denomination.

"I am still on a journey, I am very much on that track. Every day is like a new day but it's quite an exciting life."

Belinda says the Asperger's diagnosis has been very helpful in allowing her to understand her feelings.

"If somebody hurts your feelings or there's some problems with a relationship, it's on a massive scale. You're going along perfectly all right but when there is a glitch in the relationship then you fall off a cliff," she explains. "I thought everybody was like that when they got hurt by another person. It's very, very intense.

"It was extremely helpful for me because I was able to understand why my childhood was the way it was. It really was horrendous.

"It was so upsetting because you always wanted to join in but you couldn't join in. You couldn't actually go forward and be with the other children. It's a very weird thing, very isolating and lonely."

And she adds: "It's an extremely lonely place to be in when you are in this situation. In finding out this is what it was that was affecting my life, it's liberating. You can go forward."

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