At the end of July this year, my wife and I took a trip to Loch Garten in Scotland, volunteering with the RSPB as part of their Osprey Project. I have always been interested in wildlife, but am far from an expert, and didn’t know of any way that I could get involved with conservation without the requisite knowledge and experience. When my wife – who has volunteered for this kind of thing before - informed me of the possibility of spending a week as a residential volunteer for the RSPB, I agreed to go, but I must admit that I was a bit worried about what I’d let myself in for! This worry only increased when, upon arrival, we were informed that we would be taking the night shift that very evening!
The night shift involved staying in the forward hide, alone in the forest from 10pm-8am, keeping watch on the osprey nest to make sure it wasn’t disturbed by trespassers and/or poachers, as well as keeping a record of what the osprey – mother EJ, father Odin, and recently fledged chicks Rowan and Willow - were up to. Luckily, it went off without a hitch and I didn’t have to chase off anyone getting too close to the nest. However, the real test would begin the next day.
You see, when you are on shift during opening hours, you spend most of the day in the visitor centre, speaking to guests and answering any questions that they may have regarding the osprey and any other wildlife in the area. I am not an especially confident speaker and often struggle to talk to strangers and can even be prone to anxiety attacks when among large groups of people. Couple this with my knowing next to nothing about osprey,and you get some sense of my nervousness heading into the situation. Thankfully, I managed to get through the first day, answering questions that I already knew the answer to, and passing people across to members of the team for ones that I didn’t. It was fine, but I was unsure how well I was really doing.
On my next opening hour shift, however, I had a bit of a breakthrough. One of the guests asked about the bats that lived in the forest. Bats are something I actually have a bit of knowledge of, so I was able to answer his questions with confidence, but after a while the conversation inevitably moved on to the osprey. Well, as it turns out, I’d actually picked up quite a bit of knowledge about osprey in just two days, without even realising it! I was able to talk about how long EJ and Odin have been nesting on the site (this was their eighth year together, although EJ has actually been nesting there since 2003 – if they both return next year, they will be the longest lasting osprey couple that Loch Garten has ever had, so let’s root for them), and was able to impart many pearls of osprey knowledge, as if I’d always known them!
The rest of the week, I continued to surprise myself - talking to families who entered the visitor’s centre, even managing to get some of the children genuinely interested in the osprey. In fact, one particular family and I spent over an hour chatting, and their young son was very pleased to find out that he shared a name with one of the chicks. By the time I left, I had gone from being incredibly nervous to hoping that I would be returning next year to do another week or two!
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)