The RSPB is celebrating 30 years of its residential volunteering scheme this year. And the wildlife charity says that volunteers staying on site has saved them millions of pounds and allowed them to carry out work they could never dream of paying for.
Since official records began in 1996, there have been over 8,199 volunteers on the scheme, and they have achieved 33,808 weeks of work. This is valued at almost £7.5 million. It is the equivalent of having an extra 55 full time members of staff each year on RSPB nature reserves.
The RSPB’s residential volunteering scheme began over three decades ago, and it was born from a few dedicated individuals wanting to protect the endangered osprey in Abernethy, Scotland. Back then, volunteers endured extremely basic conditions, as you can see from the photograph, in order to provide 24 hour surveillance for the birds of prey, often camping in flimsy tents in inclement weather and cooking on tiny stoves. Nowadays, there are over 40 RSPB residential volunteering sites in the UK, and many have state of the art accommodation and facilities.
Residential volunteers dedicate a minimum of one week to the RSPB, but many volunteer for periods of six months or even more. Residential volunteers get involved with the whole spectrum of the RSPB’s conservation work, such as creating and managing habitats, monitoring wildlife, surveillance work and showing people round nature reserves. Practical tasks could include anything from scrub clearing and burning, nest surveying, porpoise counting or mowing grass, to repairing walls, creating paths, working in the visitor centres or taking visitors on guided walks.
Kate Tycer, RSPB Residential Volunteering Manager, says: “We genuinely couldn’t do much of the work we do across the UK without our residential volunteers. “These individuals have given us almost 1.3million hours of work since we began recording it in 1996 – and doubtless millions more since residential volunteering began in the late 1970s.
The3rdi.co.uk hears directly from a volunteer at Vane Farm, part of the Loch Leven National Nature Reserve.
Volunteering at Vane Farm
By Philip Taylor
Each morning starts with refilling the bird feeders.
The amount of food consumed raised a few eyebrows the first couple of times. An arm length feeder, brimming with sunflower hearts the previous morning, was depleted to less than half full in just twenty-four hours. It was a similar case with the other feeders. I kept expecting to see Blue Tits the size of bowling balls, waddling around, their tiny wings unable to lift their bulbous bloated stomachs.
But no. The frantic pace of life must burn off all those calories and keep the birds slender. I hoped the same applied to me – as justification for indulging in the delicious carrot cake served in the upstairs café.
Despite the relative isolation, Vane Farm is a not a low-tech operation. Powerful telescopes line the wide café windows looking out over the various pools, and of course, the ever-changing waters of Loch Leven.
My favourite gadget is the remote control camera. Situated on St Surfs, a liver-shaped island with a bite taken out of it, the camera sends live footage to a big screen in the café. On my first visit, it was proudly displaying high-resolution images of goose poo.
The other morning duty is a brisk litterpick and patrol to check the condition of the hides. Having previously volunteered on a reserve in which graffiti is the norm and from which a bizarre range of items are regularly stolen (gates, railway sleepers, a boat…) it’s a refreshing shock to arrive at the hides each morning and find them in pristine condition. One time during morning rounds, I met a Reserves’ Ecologist. He showed us a nesting Lapwing through his scope and remained amiable as I cross-questioned him about his job and how I’d go about getting one just like it. Keep volunteering he said. So I did. The first few days at Vane consisted of odd jobs. There were four residential volunteers in total. I thought perhaps they were just keeping us out of trouble and perhaps they were right to do so. We draped tarpaulins over anything of value in the workshop to save them being whitewashed when swallows start nesting in the roof.
The ‘Bothy’ provides modest accommodation and is great place to relax when there are three other volunteers. It’s not quite so relaxing when you’re alone in the dead of night. Staying at Vane, there’s a great sense of isolation. The nearest town is at least 20 minutes cycle ride away, depending on wind and rain of which there’s a plentiful supply ready to hurl down at lone cyclists. When the centre closes, it really feels like a little RSPB outpost in the middle of nowhere, albeit a very beautiful nowhere. There’s no shops, no pub, no TV signal. I’m not addicted to TV, but I did miss it, especially when the only source of entertainment was a collection of videos – yes, that’s right – VHS, how retro – which contained no less than two copies of Three Men and a Little Lady (both of which remained unwatched). As we volunteers were alone in the dark, the only people for miles around (possibly), in a house full of creaks and groans, we decided the best thing to do was watch as many spooky movies as possible. After The Sixth Sense and Sleepy Hollow, we went to bed expecting headless horsemen and an army of ghost to rampage past the windows.
At Vane Farm you soon learn that you’re always surrounded by nature. Literally. From the woodpecker drumming outside the girls’ dorm at stupid o’clock in the morning to the frequent visits by Bob the bank vole scurrying past the kitchen window. Midweek I took part in some monitoring. Out in the field, I stood watching a dog fight between a Lapwing and a Crow. The Lapwing, with its broad black-tipped wings, swooped over the ground like an exaggerated cartoon bat. It harried the black crow, letting out a piercing squeal as it twisted and turned, alternate flashes of black and white, spinning before doubling back on itself. My mind struggled to keep up with the notion this was a bird and not some CGI spaceship from an effects-laden movie. Despite the valiant efforts, when we returned to the nest an hour later, the Lapwing was gone. We recovered a couple of speckled eggs, cracked open and empty. A triangular hole was pointed out, a peck mark. There was no doubt as to the identity of the perpetrating. Indeed, they still lingered on a nearby fence post, waiting.
Already, the reserve had lost 40% of its Lapwing nests to predation by crows. A few probing questions put to the warden revealed that without statistical embellishment the real world figures were 2 out of 5 nests lost, but this was still bad news. Becoming increasingly protective of the remaining nests, I was tasked with keeping an eye on them. Simple, I thought. Yet, after half an hour of sitting in the hide, staring through a scope, I’d only just spotted the nests. A rookie error perhaps, but they’re not easy. For a bird with a white face, a punk crest and metallic green on its body, you’d think they’d be easy to spot. Not so.
It was a dull day. A low ceiling of grey cloud hung in the sky, ridged and rippled, like an ashen desert. In the diffuse light, the Lapwing plumage appeared silvery grey and became just another patch of soil, lump of stone or dried cowpat. It didn’t help that the birds were tucked into hoof prints from highland cattle. It was only the twin aerials of the birds’ crests, swaying in the breeze, that gave them away. Corvids are intelligent. I know that much from my degree. It may just have been bad timing, but it felt like the crows of Vane farm weren’t just intelligent, they were sneaky. They seemed to know I was watching and so behaved, hardly harassing the Lapwings at all. It was a similar story when we walked predator transects, looking for crows. At first the skies were clear. Just when we started to think the warden had gone off and had them all shot, we stepped onto the crest of a hill and there they all were in the distance.
The second week was just as eventful.
“Liquid sunshine!” said the warden, looking gleefully at the falling rain. An hour later, we were out in that same liquid sunshine, in the middle of a pool. After squeezing into a rubber dry suit, much like wearing an inner tube, the warden and I wadded out into chest high water to retrieve two rafts anchored in one of the pools. Placed there the previous day for the benefit of nesting birds, they were in danger of sinking.
Rolling waves slapped against my chest as I pressed on in a bizarre crouching walk that was thankfully hidden by the brown water. It was the only way not to trip on the rolling terrain of squidgy sediment beneath my feet. Rain lashed my face, so fine it could only be felt and not seen. Sour water dripped onto my lips. Looking back towards the sunlit hill behind the billowing silver veils of rain, wet boulders gleamed, blocks of light embedded in the sheer slope. I smiled. This was residential volunteering. It was pretty epic.
As I write this, there’s one week to go. I wonder what it’ll bring.