Attenborough may have celebrated his 90th birthday this year by abseiling down a building, but last weekend I met another nature-loving nonagenarian who I’m certain could give Sir David a run for his money.
Just before Springwatch wrapped up at RSPB Minsmere, and to honour National Volunteering Week, I paid a visit to the Suffolk reserve to spend a day volunteering. While I was there, I met the remarkable Elizabeth Nelson. She volunteers in the visitor centre every Saturday, and has a lifetime of love for nature. And, at 95, she’s the RSPB’s oldest volunteer.
“I am responsible for organising the pin badges and do little odd jobs around the visitor centre, like folding and preparing leaflets,” says Elizabeth, known as Betty to her colleagues. We take a stroll – she’s roguishly left her cane behind, but doesn’t appear to need it – as she tells me more.
“I used to visit Minsmere with my husband on holidays, probably 20 years ago or more. I love the Bewick's swans.”Elizabeth – named after her two grandmothers – was born in Westcliffe, but grew up in Wembley Park, Middlesex. During the Second World War she worked for the fire service, then as a full-time mum to her daughter, who lives in Sri Lanka. Elizabeth now resides in the pretty coastal town of Aldeburgh, and takes the bus to and from the reserve, just 20 minutes away.Has she always been interested in wildlife?“My parents weren’t interested in nature or wildlife, but I had a great love of animals and kept several pets including dogs, cats, canaries and budgies. I keep a canary now!”Asked whether she has seen the countryside change over the decades, she replies: “Yes it has changed a lot. I didn’t notice how much until recently. I see fewer birds overall, especially in my garden.”What does she enjoy about volunteering?
“Meeting people, and talking to them about all the wildlife they see, which helps me learn more about birds.”
Ian Barthorpe, Visitor Experience Officer at Minsmere, who has worked with Elizabeth for many years, says:
"Betty is a wonderful lady and an inspiration to all of us, remaining so active and enthusiastic. She’s been an integral part of our volunteer team for many years now.
"Regular contact with nature is important for all of us, helping to keep us all fit, healthy and young at heart. Volunteering is also great for our health and wellbeing as it keeps the mind active and maintains contact with other like-minded people."
After hanging out with Elizabeth, it was time to get on with some work myself. I set off past the sand martin colony, over the pond (catching a glimpse of Wesley the water vole) to the heath, to chat to visitors about stone curlews.
These rare, hard-to-spot waders certainly have mastered the art of camouflage: we didn’t see one all day. But I did find out that people once thought that starring into their yellow eye would cure jaundice. And they have some rather disparaging nicknames, like 'Wailing Heath Chicken' and, my favourite: 'Thick Knees'.
Later, we watched bearded tits (pictured above) and sedge warblers flitting and calling through the golden reeds under the pleasant mid-June sun. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Volunteering is a wonderful way of meeting people, learning new things and getting to know the RSPB’s beautiful reserves from an insider’s perspective. Many visitors remarked how nice it was to see ‘young people’ like myself showing an interest in nature. I’m 30, so was pretty pleased with that comment, but there are plenty younger than me, including Grace, aged eight, who volunteers with her parents at Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire.
So volunteering really is for everyone. Plus, how beautiful that a love of nature can cross a near 90-year divide? There can’t be many things in life with such a broad appeal as that.
Residential volunteering at Mersehead is not only a great experience but can give you a great 'foot up' for a career in conservation, as two of its former volunteers explain...
“My first experience of long-term residential volunteering with the RSPB after I decided to change career was at Mersehead, and it was brilliant! Not only was it a wonderful place to be over the summer, right on the coast of the Solway Firth with huge flocks of Barnacle Geese either feeding in the fields or flying out to roost on the mudflats at dusk, but I learned so much while I was there. Bird and butterfly survey techniques, how to use a brushcutter, the essence of wetland and reedbed management, working with and leading the short-term residential volunteers, being duty manager in the visitor centre, leading guided walks...the list could go on! Not only that, but the team at the reserve were so friendly and welcoming. I’ve now managed to get an assistant warden position with the RSPB, and the start I was given at Mersehead played a huge part in that.”
Dan Snowdon, Residential Trainee Warden April 2013 – September 2013 (Now Assistant Warden at Lydden Valley & Dungeness)
“As a residential volunteer at Mersehead I had the opportunity to live and breathe reserve life, living in the heart of the reserve with wildlife all around. Being part of a small dedicated team and seeing the internal workings of a reserve was a fantastic experience. The variety of work I have been involved in, from manning the visitor centre to counting thousands of geese, has been the perfect stepping stone in developing my skills for a career in conservation.”
Gavin Chambers, Residential Trainee Warden October 2014 – March 2015 (Now Assistant Warden at Lake Vyrnwy)
“I have already gained a lot of valuable experience from volunteering at Mersehead. I wanted to volunteer somewhere with the potential for coastal birds, and couldn’t have been given more opportunities to survey them. To top the beautiful views off, the accommodation is well looked after and a nice place to be.”
Paul Baker, Residential Trainee Warden October 2015 – March 2016
If you want a break from ‘city’ life and the noise of cars, if you want to experience nature, tranquillity and a sea breeze then I would strongly recommend Mersehead!”“My time volunteering at Mersehead has given me an interesting and varied insight into the conservation, management and daily running of a nature reserve. Volunteers are provided with a modern cosy farm house flat and the chance to take part in relevant courses and on the job training.
Jennifer Breen, Residential Events & Learning Volunteer October 2015 – March 2016
“Volunteering at RPSB Mersehead has exposed me to some fantastic wildlife. From thousands of geese to spectacular wildfowl and waders. I’ve gained valuable hands on experience and met some great people as well”
Tim Lill, Residential Trainee Warden October 2015 – March 2016