RSPB staff are encouraged to spend one day a year volunteering elsewhere in the organisation. This includes those right at the top of the RSPB's 'food-chain' as Chief Executive Mike Clarke discovered.
He tells us about his day helping to clear out invasive plants at Baron's Haugh in Lanarkshire.
Baron's Haugh is a gem of a site. It's one of our reserves that I've never visited, so I jumped at the chance. 'Haugh' means flooded river meadow, a key habitat on the reserve.
Almost over-shadowed by Motherwell's tower blocks, the mighty Clyde that flows along the reserve boundary has some of the most natural riverbanks in the UK. It's home to often-seen otters and much like beaver habitat I've seen on rivers in Eastern Europe.
It's part of what was once a grand estate, with relict parkland, woods and formal landscapes at one end of the reserve. This, together with its urban edge location, mean that the reserve has a host of problems with invasive non-native species (INNS).
This was the second reason why I was so keen to volunteer here, because INNS are one of the biggest threats to biodiversity worldwide. Elsewhere, in Ayrshire for example, Himalayan balsam is a major issue on floodplains. This was my chance to take direct action!
So, I was delighted when Stephen Owen, our site manager, agreed for me to join the regular Thursday volunteer party to remove rhododendron around a badger sett before the deadline in the licence from Scottish Natural Heritage and before the rain set in later in the day, preventing chemical treatment of stumps.
I was even more pleased when I found my first task was to build a bonfire! To burn off the rhododendron we were bashing for the morning (and bringing out my inner pyromaniac and volunteer past...).
Loyal Band of Volunteers
Stephen is the only member of staff, managing a diverse site with lots of even more diverse visitors. We can only get things done by the loyal band of volunteers who, over the years, have improved just about every part of the reserve.
The Thursday volunteer team is a varied bunch, but unified by their passion for and commitment to nature - from a school leaver applying to university and a full-time carer who volunteers in his only time off, to regular retirees staying active. We'd cleared the rhododendron by lunch, so set about digging up snowberry bushes in the afternoon.
We chatted about ruddy ducks, telemarketing, the volunteer reward scheme and the fact that the RSPB is the nature charity brave enough to speak out on challenging issues. I was in awe of our volunteers' tolerance of our bureaucracy. Maybe people do appreciate some safeguards are necessary.
An active day outdoors
It reminded me that there really are some wonderful people in the world - and many of them are RSPB volunteers and supporters. I treasure all of them. The day wasn't so much about learning something new as reminding me of two important things. Following behind the volunteer team as we left, I could simply hear laughter ringing in the woods ahead of me.
The other thing? My own wellbeing. After a couple of fairly heavy weeks mainly in meetings, I was reminded how good it feels to spend an active day outdoors surrounded by wildlife.
Writing this on the train home - smoky, muddy and damp - I've had a great day as a volunteer.
We chat to Matthew Scott, a young volunteer, about his time with the RSPB...
Hi Matthew! When did you first begin volunteering with the RSPB and how often do you volunteer?
I started volunteering back in May 2011 and currently I am doing between one and three days per week.
And what inspired you to get involved?
I have been an RSPB member since I began secondary school and was passionate about wildlife and the environment for many years before that. As I got older I became more aware of the threats and pressures facing our natural environment, and felt compelled to do my part. A short length of time into my voluntary experience I was enjoying myself so much that I decided the nature conservation sector was that within which I wished to build my future career. This aspiration to attain a future career saving nature is what keeps me so keen and involved to this day, gaining valuable experience as I go. As well being driven towards gaining experience to help me on my career path I simply enjoy the work, feel like I am doing my part, am developing my interests, and find it all incredibly rewarding.
What does your work entail?
I have and still do volunteer across a number of roles with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, both locally in Northern Ireland and across the UK. I began volunteering by undertaking farmland bird surveys, which involve getting up at dawn and walking around farms recording the birdlife that you see and hear. I volunteer regularly as a Reserve Assistant at the organisation’s Portmore and Belfast Lough Reserves, where I undertake a variety of wetland habitat management activities, biological surveying, and people engagement. Recently I became involved in the RSPB’s policy and advocacy work whereby I have looked at legislative issues with potential to affect the environment, drafted up media releases and spoken at the Northern Ireland Assembly. On the UK wide scale I have carried out 22 weeks Residential Volunteering across four reserves. This has involved working in a variety of environments, from off-shore islands to mountainous uplands to industrial areas, and a variety of roles. During this time I have learnt valuable visitor engagement, volunteer management, animal husbandry, species identification, survey, water management, and diverse habitat management skills.
What skills and qualities are required for your role?
Communication skills are very important as, on a daily basis, I am communicating with a range of staff, volunteers, and members of the public verbally. Or as has been the case with my campaigning work, communicating in writing and speech to the public and politicians. However, as I have passed through my volunteering journey I have greatly developed and enhanced these skills. With regard to essential qualities, you need to be someone who is willing to accept a challenge, doesn’t mind undertaking simple or repetitive tasks, and isn’t bothered by working in bad weather; as in practical reserve work you will regularly encounter all of the above! I have used and, as with communication, greatly developed teamwork and leadership skills.
What do you enjoy most about volunteering?
I’ve really enjoyed the chance to learn new skills and develop existing ones. I have seen the positive impact that the volunteering actions of myself and others are having on special places and public perceptions of nature. Then lastly, I have met some incredible people along the way; some of the friendliest, funniest, most passionate and inspirational I know.
So you would encourage others to get involved?
Absolutely! The experiences that you have through volunteering for the RSPB are just fantastic. Getting access to places that are normally out of bounds to the public means you get the opportunity to see some truly amazing things, often without prior warning. If you have any interest in nature conservation or the environment at all, the things you learn and the people you meet are invaluable, with several of my volunteering colleagues having gone on to secure employment in the sector. Finally, as an organisation the RSPB are fantastic at providing you with all you need to be a happy and effective volunteer. Making provision for training, support, and feedback, and maintaining good standards of communication.
And lastly, what advice would you give to someone starting to volunteer?
I would highly recommend that you really get stuck in to your chosen role. It might be a cliché, but the more you put into it the more you get out of it. If you are at all interested in working in the sector I would say that you should fully immerse yourself in all the volunteering opportunities available, covering a variety of aspects of the organisation’s work and a variety of sites. In doing this you will see what you enjoy best, and the potential to learn is incredible. You don’t know what doors and opportunities could be opened to you, but embrace them.
Many thanks Matthew, and keep up the good work!
Hi all. This is my first blog so I would like to introduce myself. My name is Robert Hawkes and I’m the RSPB grass heath project officer for the East of England. The Brecks is located in north Suffolk and south Norfolk and is nearly 1000 square kilometres. This region is home to the largest extent of grass heath habitat in the UK, so as can be imagined; I spend most of my time here.
The Brecks, as you will be aware from my colleague’s blogs, is home to nearly 13,000 species. Over 2000 of these species are of national importance for conservation, with some occurring no where else in the UK. As I’m sure you can appreciate this is a truly remarkable statistic, but one that could only be made available through an innovative new approach to conservation - biodiversity auditing. Biodiversity auditing involves collecting as many species records as possible across a given region and time span. Once these records have been collected, it is possible to identify which species are of conservation concern, where these species live, and what management they need to thrive. The Brecks was the first region in the UK that this approach was applied too, and I’m pleased to report it punches well above its weight in terms of its conservation importance.
One key outcome of the biodiversity approach is the recognition of those priority species which we typically overlook. Birds and mammals are generally well recognised, and in some cases, well monitored. However, the same cannot be said for insects, which often need specialist knowledge to successfully identify. By considering all species both big and small, the audit not only recognised these under recorded species, but demonstrated which ones are of conservation importance.
By auditing biodiversity in the Brecks, we now have a sound evidence base for taking conservation forward. One of the key findings of this report was that many priority species in the Brecks require periodic ground disturbance in order to thrive, conditions that were once common place in the Brecks. For example, rabbits, which were introduced in the Brecks in the 13th centaury, were farmed for their meat and fir in large commercial warrens. At these high densities, rabbits created the conditions which many priority species require (through intense grazing and burrowing). Rabbits, and their role in Breckland conservation, will be the subject of my next blog.
Photo: Rabbit by Ian Smith.
Restoring these conditions to the dry-open habitats of the Brecks (i.e. arable farmland and grass heathland) is essential if we are to cater for the rich biodiversity which this region is so special for. We are working with a wide range of local partners to achieve this ambition, so watch this blog for updates.
The Breckland Biodiversity Audit was commissioned by the Norfolk and Suffolk Biodiversity Partnerships, Plantlife, Forestry Commission, Brecks Partnership and Natural England, and was undertaken by the University of East Anglia. The report can be downloaded from the reports and publication page of the Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership website under ‘Securing Biodiversity in Breckland. Guidance for conservation and research (main report)’: www.norfolkbiodiversity.org. For any one interested in finding out more I recommend checking this fantastic bit of work out.
RSPB Grass Heath Project Officer, the Brecks