Get Busy Outdoors this Spring

With ever-increasing signs of springtime emerging ANDREA SCOTT explores the worthwhile work of countryside volunteering through local wildlife trusts. It’s a great way to keep fit and contribute to improving the local environment.

Castle Eden Dene
Beautiful natural environment. Castle Eden Dene Photo © David Simpson 2018

As the first signs of Spring emerge, our local countryside becomes greener and more beautiful.  One way to enjoy the thawing outdoors is to do some worthwhile volunteer work in your region. Volunteers can develop their interest in wildlife, improve local countryside, get fitter and meet like-minded people. They can look back on a project knowing that they’ve helped to make a positive difference.

The Wildlife Trust has around 43,000 volunteers in the United Kingdom. Northumberland Wildlife Trust (NWT) owns and manages 62 nature reserves with the help of over 250 volunteers. Their Community Conservation Project engages the public through its local nature reserves. These support a wide range of species, monitored by regular surveys. Task volunteers help with habitat management and maintenance of infrastructure.

Heart of Durham volunteers at Thornley Woods

Lou Chapman has been organising volunteers since 2009. “We have so many opportunities. Practical conservation out on nature reserves is our biggest role, however, people can help out in our cafes, information assistance to visitors on reserves, community engagement events, education programme, reception assistance, helping in the office environment. You name it, we probably do it!”

Volunteers are not held to a set timetable. “Time commitments vary depending upon the role you choose to do. For example, to do a practical conservation day, it’s a full day from 9:15am until 4pm or for helping on reception or in the café it can be a couple of hours on a given day. You don’t even have to do a weekly commitment, it’s very flexible… some people come once per month or even less. It’s fun and flexible and not a ‘job’. We want our volunteers to enjoy their time here and essentially want to come back.”

Lou wants to encourage potential new recruits. “Go for it, you won’t know if you like it if you don’t try. Whatever your skills and experience or background you are welcome. Even if you feel you don’t have any, we will train you up. At NWT we offer a ‘trial go’ so you can see what’s it’s like before fully registering. We know volunteering is not for everyone but we offer so many different opportunities… to get involved in both inside and outside that it’s worth giving it a try. Everyone is very friendly and open to new people coming in. It’s great for your mental health too!”

Durham Wildlife Trust volunteers, Rainton Meadows

Margaret Brabbon has been volunteering for Durham Wildlife Trust (DWT) for over 9 years. “Initially I was looking for something when I retired from a teaching profession. I am a practical person and enjoy being with people. I had never been involved with any conservation work before and thoroughly enjoy it. The advantage of volunteering here is that people can drop in and drop out when it suits them. I spend one day a week doing the conservation work and another two days helping with admin. The most enjoyable aspect about volunteering for me is being with completely new people from different walks of life and learning new skills. At all times of the year there are a variety of tasks and we get to see many different sites across the county…reclaimed quarries, meadows and coastal areas.”

Task force volunteer, Faye Butler attended a volunteer recruitment day and signed up. “I have been volunteering for DWT for over 3 years, having been a member of the trust for several years. I had a 35-year nursing career in the NHS and retired from my position as a matron in surgery prior to starting volunteering. I have a keen lifelong interest in nature and the outdoors and when thinking about my plan for retirement I knew I wanted to be involved in conservation and protecting the environment. I also wanted something that would help me keep fit in mind and body and as a nurse I am aware of the beneficial and therapeutic effects of being outdoors and working in green spaces.”

Kepier Wood Durham
Woodland at Kepier, Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2017

Faye says, “There are many aspects of volunteering with DWT which I enjoy: being part of a team and having new colleagues, having a hard day’s graft, learning new skills. Each week a programme of tasks to be undertaken are emailed out to the volunteer workforce. This could be anything from path repairs, building a boardwalk, felling trees, clearing out ponds or cutting back undergrowth. The task could be on any one of the many and diverse reserves managed by DWT. It is often hard physical work but you feel great at the end of the day with a real sense of achievement. I like the idea of lifelong learning and DWT is excellent at providing training opportunities. So far, I’ve been on a drystone walling course, strimmer training and using pesticides training. I’ve also attended courses on identifying ferns, trees in winter, amphibians and reptiles. I like to think I am giving something back and helping DWT to protect and preserve wonderful environments for future generations.”

Forestry Commission England organise volunteers in practical conservation, vegetation management, maintenance of trails and wildlife surveys. Their Kielder Water and Forest Park hold special trail-building days to improve the forest’s vast network of walking, cycling and horse-riding trails. Volunteers are also needed for their Osprey Project, to watch nests and engage with the public at viewing sites. If that doesn’t appeal, there are jobs indoors, such as visitor centre work or help with reception or events.

At Hamsterley Forest, rangers lead volunteers on the first and third Thursday of every month to undertake trail checks and maintenance of facilities. Hamsterley Trailblazers focus on developing the forest’s full potential as a mountain bike centre. They organise monthly trail-building sessions to maintain existing cycle trails and develop new ones.

Local voluntary groups include the Gateshead-based, Friends of Chopwell Wood (FoCW) a practical maintenance group that meet in the woods (on second and fourth Wednesdays of the month). The group is more than ten years old and was formed by the FoCW committee to care for this very special woodland.  Have a search locally, email a few groups to find out what they do and come along to try it out. The FoCW volunteers can take part in a wide range of projects, help run events like bat watching, pond dipping, fungal foraging, green wood-crafting, or help with litter picking and general maintenance. Regular volunteers help at least once a month but there are several one-off volunteering events where extra hands are needed such as the spring clean or the Woodfest event which require a couple of hours a year.  Help is always required at their biggest annual event, the Christmas Experience and tree sales.

Cambois beach looking south towards Blyth
Cambois beach looking south towards Blyth. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Why not help to improve our coastal areas for wildlife as well as people? Beachwatch, a programme organised by the Martine Conservation Society, organise regular beach clean ups. All you need to do is sign up as a volunteer and turn up. Nic Emery, organiser of the Cambois beach cleans near Blyth recommends it. “Joining an organised event is great because likeminded folk are getting together and leave with an enormous sense of accomplishment after they helped remove hundreds of kilos of trash from the beach. Some of our volunteers aren’t even local – they come from all over the country!”

Volunteer Sharon Lashley has recently organised an event at Roker, as part of the 2018 Great British Beach Clean. “Our beach cleans are a great way of getting people involved locally and it’s important that we involve as many people as possible – they are also a great way of encouraging people to enjoy activities in the fresh air, socialise and network with others whilst, most importantly, tidying up the beaches and stopping litter and rubbish making its way back out to sea.”

Volunteers at Roker Beach. Photo: Media Borne mediaborne.co.uk

If gardening is your passion, why not get involved with the National Trust or English Heritage? Horticultural volunteers are needed all year round to help gardens thrive. As well as basic tasks, you can learn about planting schemes, supervise the gardens, give tours and demonstrations or interact with visitors. National Trust offer opportunities to help with their Coast and Countryside conservation project. Opportunities include dry stone walling, woodland work, maintenance of fencing and pathways, conducting bio-surveys of species and leading guided walks.

The Red Squirrels United group works to protect red squirrel strongholds through a robust grey squirrel management programme. It is a huge partnership, uniting more than thirty UK organisations. Why not join the 1200 community based rapid response team of volunteers? They assist in reporting grey sightings, monitoring feeders, setting up cameras and educating the public. Northeast Red Squirrels is a charity working with existing volunteer groups to engage with local communities to help conserve red squirrels. Their Red Squirrels Newcastle Project aims to boost the red population to the west of the city. ‘Adopt a Wood’ volunteers are currently needed to monitor feeders in the area. “Our strategy is ambitious, but with dedication from local volunteers and landowners is totally achievable.”

There are so many reasons to get involved. Personal benefits, mental, physical and social as well as helping to improve our natural environment and local wildlife. It could change your life. Why not contact one of your local organisations today?

Durham Wildlife Trust: 0191 5843112; email volunteer@durhamwt.co.uk

Northumberland Wildlife Trust: 0191 2846884; email volunteer@northwt.org.uk

Hamsterley Forest (Forestry Commission): Tel. 01388 488312; email laura.turtle@forestry.gsi.gov.uk

Kielder Water and Forest Park (Forestry Commission)  www.visitkielder.com/outdoor-event/kielder-volunteers; Tel. 01434 250209;

Friends of Chopwell Wood friendsofchopwellwood.org.uk : Tel. 01207 542495

English Heritage: www.english-heritage.org.uk

National Trust: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/volunteer

Marine Conservation Society: www.mcsuk.org/how-you-can-help

Northeast Red Squirrels: 07779 577485; email info@northeastredsquirrels.co.uk

Red Squirrels United: www.redsquirrelsunited.org.uk