Family Activity Event, Young boy and girl with volunteer in a wildfower meadow, making an artwork using petals, leaves and grasses, Forest Farm, Wales

A little time goes a long way

Volunteers are the RSPB's lifeblood; they come from all walks of life and are involved in all elements of our work.

Best of British

In a recent article published by Best of British magazine, volunteers were voted the number one thing that makes Britain great, above the Queen, who came in at number two and streets ahead of a good old cup of tea, which languished down in 51st place.

As an organisation that relies heavily on the time and talents of our thousands of volunteers it's no exaggeration to say that they are vital to the RSPB – without their dedication, we simply wouldn't be such a powerful force for nature.

Kids at a Family Activity Event pond dipping to identify pond species.

Something for everyone

An incredible 85% of the people who "work" for us do so as volunteers and, collectively, they contribute more than 954,000 hours of their time to saving nature every year. In fact, 23% of all the time worked at the RSPB is by volunteers.

What is so wonderful about our volunteers is that they come from all age groups and walks of life. Our youngest volunteer, Jack Adams, is just two years old and helps monitor the bird feeding station at Highnam Woods in Gloucestershire with his parents; while our oldest volunteer, Elizabeth Nelson, started her volunteering at Minsmere in Suffolk aged 81 and is still going strong at 95.

We're incredibly proud that our volunteering opportunities not only allow people to actively contribute to protecting nature, but also to developing their confidence and skills.

At our Old Moor reserve in Yorkshire, we have a brilliant Wetland Workforce made up of volunteers with learning disabilities. Supported by the Barnsley Adult Learning Disabilities Employment and Volunteer Service, they work in the café, look after the flower beds and make sure the reserve is looking at its best by collecting litter and cleaning the hides and classrooms.

Not only does this help our reserve team by providing extra pairs of hands, the volunteers themselves are able to get together in a friendly environment and gain new skills, boosting their confidence and self esteem.

Gaining skills

An increase in confidence is just one of the things that Joanna Lindsay, a 22-year-old zoology graduate, gained when she took up a post as a visitor experience volunteer at Lochwinnoch in November 2016:

"In such a short time, volunteering with the RSPB has already done so much for me both personally and professionally; through meeting people and building my confidence, as well as preparing me for a career in conservation.

I have never been one of those people who are naturally charismatic and brilliant at chatting to anyone and everyone, but through the support and training I've received at  Lochwinnoch I've really built up my confidence in public engagement.

Now I love sharing my enthusiasm for nature with the wonderful variety of visitors that come through our doors; from kids and families to expert birdwatchers."

A step on the ladder

Whether our would-be volunteers have a few hours to spare, or a few months, we offer a huge range of opportunities from office-based volunteering to hands-on conservation work in the great outdoors.

One of our most popular opportunities is to spend time on a reserve as a residential volunteer.

The scheme was set up in the late 1970s and almost 40 years on we now offer places at 44 sites across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In 2016, nearly 600 people took up placements and a third of those used the opportunity as the first step on the ladder to a career in conservation, like Gavin Chambers, who spent time as a residential volunteer at Mersehead in Dumfries and Galloway and is now the Assistant Warden at Lake Vyrnwy in Powys.

RSPB volunteer planting a tree

For the love of nature

While some of our volunteers join us to help make a career in conservation possible, others donate their time purely for the love of nature. One such volunteer is Hilary Brooker-Carey, who works as a volunteer warden on Coquet Island off the Northumberland Coast.

My name is Hilary Brooker-Carey and I'm a volunteer warden for the RSPB on Coquet Island, off the north-east coast of Northumberland.

The island's watched 24 hours a day to protect the birds – the roseate terns in particular. It is the sanctuary for Britain's rarest breeding seabird and we have to protect them.

We put out nestboxes which are clearly numbered so that the wardens can actually see which birds go in which nestbox. 

When you have to walk up to the lighthouse you have to walk through the nesting area of the terns. It can be quite daunting because the terns do attack you. And it can be quite painful because their beaks are very sharp.

The work, I love. It's a real passion for me and I just want to keep on doing it for ever – it’s that good!

Nightshift generally starts about dusk time. I come down with my Tilley lamp, open up the hide and just get myself settled initially. If I noticed anything on the nightshift: somebody coming in or something suspicious I would make my presence known by shining the light, and then make my way up the lighthouse where I would be telling the warden and also contacting the police.

It can be a bit eerie in nightshift, especially when the fog’s coming in or the mist and the seals start calling because that sounds quite ghostly. I think it's as you get perhaps tired and your mind starts playing tricks on you.

As dawn breaks at the end of the nightshift, the birds become more active. And the puffins, there's some burrows beside the hide, and occasionally you might see just one peeping out, just to say 'is it safe to come out'. So it's very nice and you feel a great sense of satisfaction to know that you've got through the night and everything's fine!

I like to relax in a wheelbarrow, it's very comfortable it’s the way it just reclines back! And it means you actually can lie on the ground without getting all the sand in your hair and things. But you can see all the birds flying over, it’s lovely. It’s really relaxing.

I can't ever see myself giving the volunteering up here, I just love it too much. I'd be here on my Zimmer if health and safety allowed it!

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Volunteers saving nature

Volunteers play a crucial role in the RSPB’s work and we try to ensure that their individual strengths and talents are used in the best possible way, whether that’s out on a nature reserve or behind a desk.

For example, Chas Leslie, a former Training Consultant, volunteers with our Learning and Development team and has been running workshops for our managers:

"It seems remote from maintaining reedbeds and woodland, but by training and developing the RSPB’s managers, they are better able to do their jobs – promoting and protecting habitats for birds and other wildlife. It’s really just making the best use of my experience and expertise to make a difference. That’s all any volunteer wants really – to know they are making a difference."

Similarly, Mark Smith has been putting his computer skills to good use by running the RSPB eBay account, which brought in more than £55,500 during the 2016/17 financial year.

Since we first launched our eBay account it has raised £125,000 for nature, something that simply wouldn’t have been possible without the support of volunteers.

Looking forward, we're particularly keen to help volunteers become more involved in our nature recovery work and have been piloting new ways to do just that throughout 2016. As part of our Saving Nature Scheme, we've been recruiting volunteers as project co-ordinators and volunteering managers.

By providing training, we aim to equip them with the skills they need to take on decision-making and management roles within their particular project.

We hope that enabling volunteers to become more deeply involved in our species recovery projects will make volunteering with us an even more fulfilling experience, and also help to build a much stronger RSPB for the future.

With volunteers truly embedded in our conservation work we will be able to do even more to tackle the challenges facing nature.

 

Seed mix spreading by RSPB volunteer John White, part of Cirl Bunting protection, RSPB Labrador Bay nature reserve, Devon

A very special thank you

Though nature is still under threat, we can rightly celebrate a host of conservation successes, many of which have been brought about with the help of volunteers.

To recognise the dedication of those who have really gone above and beyond for the RSPB, we present six President's Awards at our AGM each year.

In 2016, one of these awards went to our team of Chough Watchers, who have played a vital role in the recovery of Cornish choughs by protecting nests from disturbance, keeping the choughs safe and acting as ambassadors for the birds.

Each member of the team contributes in their own way – whether it's by donating artwork to raise funds or by putting their carpentry skills to good use creating equipment – and each can be proud of their contribution to this conservation success story.

Choughs (pyrrhocrax graculus) pair in flight at dusk, South Stack RSPB reserve, Wales
Chough

Tea with the Queen

In June 2016, we were able to say thank you to some of our other volunteers in a more unusual way, by taking five of them to London to celebrate the Queen's 90th birthday.

As patron of more than 600 charities – including the RSPB – the Queen had invited 10,000 guests to join her at a Great British street party on The Mall.

Unfortunately the weather was rather soggy, but the rain didn't dampen our volunteers' enthusiasm and they had a great time enjoying the parade and seeing various members of the royal family.

The event was a great success and a wonderful way to say thank you for all that the volunteers – and indeed all our volunteers – have done for the RSPB.

I'd like to finish this overview of the year with the thoughts of Mike Clarke, our Chief Executive and a former volunteer himself, who knows just how vital a role volunteers play at the RSPB: 

"Our volunteers bring their passion, skill, flair, loyalty and hard work to our cause every day, allowing us to do our best for the nature that needs us. Saving nature is complex, long-term and challenging, and every one of our thousands of volunteers matters. We couldn't do what we do without them."

 

Staff and volunteers checking nest boxes put out for common dormice, hazel coppice, Stour Wood RSPB nature reserve. Essex, England