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  • Volunteering at The RSPB in the Hebrides

    I love getting stories from volunteers who have been inspired and amazed at the time they spend helping the nature around them. This week, Calum Wells tells us why he wants you to come and try volunteering at the RSPB in the Hebrides...

    One of the first things I did in RSPB volunteer work, well, I think it was around the third thing, was walk twelve miles or so up and down hills and then sit in one place for what felt like an age and a half in harsh weather looking for sea eagles. It was surprisingly fun. I have done a lot of RSPB work since then, and I still find it fun. Even when it is frustrating, you do tend to get a nice sense of accomplishment when you finish a bird survey in bad weather or similar.

    There tends to be a strange sense of feast or famine depending on what sort of work you get. During some months there is not one day I spent with the RSPB that wasn't full of hard work, like making stooks and trekking coastlines, and then it see-saws into a month or two of sitting in a field for an hour checking up on tern colonies, where the most tiring part was repositioning every now and then to avoid pins and needles. This means that I am often caught completely off guard to what I am going to do, and in my opinion that isn't a bad thing

    The RSPB have a great many uses for corn, so one day I found myself in a field with a pitchfork shovelling sheaves of corn into a tractor trailer. After we had filled the trailer with almost half the corn from the field we then transported it to another field many miles away and started unloading it and constructing stacks. While we were unloading the corn my supervisor, with his characteristic presence of mind and physical co-ordination, managed to warn everyone of a hole in the bottom of the trailer half a minute or so before nearly falling down it himself.

    Making a stack is a lot more complicated than one might think. You must make sure that it has a very wide base. It must be as circular as you can get it to be. And you must always point the sheaves you are adding to the stack so that the seed faces in the right direction. You must build up on this base and ensure the whole thing tapers to a point. Then you will have a stack of corn around the height of a man that will be remarkably resilient to bad weather.

    What you must not do is what I did, which was to start off on a base that was probably more of a rhombus than a circle, put the corn down any old way, and forget to taper it so you end up with a bizarre-looking vaguely cylindrical protrusion of corn sticking up from the ground and only held together by the net we put over it and the stacks we put around it to ensure nobody glared at it too much.

    Corn buntings are an endangered species, which we’re looking to protect. For a while there have been feed sites that RSPB have been setting up around the islands. More recently the feedsites have been placed in cages to ensure that the corn buntings can reach them but not sheep and cattle. The cages are also to protect the corn buntings from predatory animals, like buzzards or merlins, while they’re feeding.

    That’s meant that I’ve been making cages out of wood and bits of fence. It took a while for us to get a design that works. Eventually we settled on one by a process of trial and error. With two people working on them we averaged around three or four per day. By far the most important job was getting someone to distract Mack, an extremely cheerful dog that doesn't even belong to the house where we were making them, but kept showing up and making a nuisance of himself. This task usually fell to me. Whenever he got too close or interfered with us hammering staples into the wood, or got too close to the power tool, I would have to invent some sort of method of getting Mack to charge back off into the undergrowth whence he came.

    I also learnt that corn buntings are a small brown bird, akin to a sparrow but bigger. They are actually a lot more interesting than my description makes them out to be. It’s just difficult to describe them in a way that sounds interesting! I suppose it’s something to do with the fact that their patterning does so much with a rather mundane colour that somehow isn't dull. This makes them interesting to look at, but the colours used make it a serviceable camouflage as well. It’s a bit like a sparrow, but brighter and better.

    When I did the most exciting thing I’ve ever done with the RSPB I had no idea what I was getting myself into. We all piled onto a boat and set off. It was only after we had gone under a bridge that I realised that we wouldn’t be able to get back until 8 o’clock in the evening, when the tide would be low enough to let us through again. After a substantial amount of time imagining various possible methods of escape we stopped off at an island mostly consisting of beach where some of our party left to conduct some other research. As we sought to continue our journey we realised that a rope had wrapped around the propeller halting our progress onwards.

    After a substantial amount of time trying to find a sacrificial volunteer to dive in and free the propeller we found that it had freed itself and we were able to carry on. When we reached our destination, Hasgair, we split up into two groups and explored either side of the island. Our purpose was to count the nesting birds, which left me in the unenviable position of clambering over rocks with fulmars nesting in them. There is something uniquely terrifying about climbing over a crag only to find three different angry parents preparing to throw up on you on the other side.

    After we had completed our survey and I was no longer in danger of being spat on by a fulmar or struck on the head by an angry skua we all piled back in the boat and I suddenly realised what fun the whole day had been. After an amount of time was spent drinking beverages on deck and feeling good about ourselves, we picked up the others we had dropped off previously and headed for our home harbour, which we reached eventually after breaking down again and being towed in by a fishing boat.

    On reflection, the volunteering I do at the RSPB is often tiring, difficult, sometimes exhausting work that I wouldn't sign myself up for and would definitely not enjoy normally. Somehow, though, it's fun. Somehow, walking several miles up and down hills and through boggy ground full of insects to check up on a single eagle chick, is great fun. I have no idea why. I suppose if I was going to turn this into a recruitment drive, I would ask you to come on and find out. In fact let’s do that, come on and find out.



  • Guest volunteering blog Part 2: The beginning of Hazeley Heath

    Time for part two of our Hazeley Heath Spotlight and here Emily Clark tells us why she loves being involved with the very beginning of Hazeley Heath’s story...

    "Following my work in community fundraising in the South East Regional Office for the past two years, I took on the role as Volunteer Coordinator Intern at Hazeley Heath at the beginning of February. I landed upon this role by chance as I was looking to expand my skills in coordinating volunteers in order to develop a career and Hazeley was in need of some extra support so a perfect match!

    Hazeley Heath is one of the less well known and more recently acquired RSPB reserves. I think that’s why it’s a great place to volunteer. It’s right at the start of it’s restoration back to a healthy heathland. This means it’s a chance to see it from the beginning and to be a key part of building the reserve to what it should be. This have given me an opportunity to make the role (within reason!) what I want it to be as I am the first person to be Hazeley Heath’s volunteer coordinator.

    I have been a volunteer for several different organisations and every one of those roles has taught me something and/or allowed me to then take on a new challenge. Volunteering is becoming increasingly flexible and is for everyone - whether you are looking to develop skills to start your career, or you are already in a career but would like to try something new that fits in around your lifestyle. Maybe you are in retirement but still want to be part of something where your skills and knowledge can make a contribution and are appreciated.

    So, if you are looking for a challenge, on a reserve where everything you do will make a huge impact, as well as being part of the beginning of Hazeley Heath’s story then get in touch and find out how you can take part. From helping with events and spreading the word, to getting stuck in with hands on conservation work as a work party volunteer or how about surveying the wildlife  found on Hazeley Heath? There are plenty of roles to get involved with so please get in touch with me to find out more on emily.clark@rspb.org.uk."

  • Guest Volunteering blog from Hazeley Heath: Volunteering – a two way thing

    This week we are turning the spotlight on Hazeley Heath volunteers. Hazeley Heath is a surviving vestige of a once sprawling lowland heathland of south England. 

    Isabel Morgan, the Project officer from Hazeley Heath, tells us what volunteers and volunteering means to her...

     "Last month my ‘practical conservation’ volunteers moved a mountain, then they helped little terns at Langstone and at some time in the future they will be building a wildlife garden (although they don’t know about that bit yet).  No doubt the ‘events team’ volunteers are hoping for good weather for the first off-site event of the year. ‘Do everything Dave’ has been out surveying reptiles, walking the butterfly transect and putting his photography skills to good use. Whilst (volunteer) volunteer co-ordinator Emily will be the first person you speak to about volunteering at Hazeley.

    My volunteers do a lot for me and they all form part of a growing team full of different skills and personalities.  They are all important to me as without them it simply just doesn’t work.

    Everybody asks the question at some point.  Why do you do it?  Often there is a pause a moment of introspection before there is an answer - a change in career, the start of a career, recent retirement, staying active, something to do, a hobby. Everybody has a slightly different reason one that is personal to them.

    Even as a member of staff I still volunteer (and I don’t just mean the over-time). For me volunteering was initially about deciding what to do after graduating from university. A couple of days a week spent as a guide in hide and a bit of practical work. Then it became a way of gaining experience to compete for conservation jobs. I started volunteering between paid contracts using them for opportunities of networking and training. Now I volunteer because it’s something I enjoy and I have the opportunity to do something different to my usual day-job.

    During one of our training courses we’re taught that one of the top reasons people volunteer is because somebody asked them...

    So I’d like to ask you to have a look at what you could do for Hazeley and give a little bit of your time to us. There are lots of opportunities from helping with events, getting your hands dirty with some practical work out on the reserve and survey work for those with good id skills or a specific interest. In a few months time we’ll be open for residential volunteers as well see the website for more details: www.rspb.org.uk/residentialvolunteering.   

    We hope to hear from you soon."