Volunteering at Dean Castle Country Park – something for everyone

Logo: Dean Castle Country Park

Jessica Wharf with stories by Alexander Black, Daniela Senatore and Stuart Hay

Alec cleaning a scythe (Jess Wharf)
Alec cleaning a scythe (Jess Wharf)

Dean Castle Country Park in Kilmarnock is perhaps not your typical conservation volunteering destination but thanks to a Heritage Lottery funded project, a growing volunteer programme is now in place. East Ayrshire has the second lowest volunteering numbers in Scotland with just 20% of adults volunteering compared to a national average of 27% (Scottish Household Survey 2015). The Country Park itself, run by East Ayrshire Leisure, is in an area of multiple deprivation and in the past has had only occasional volunteers.

The HLF volunteer programme, which kick-started last year, aimed to get local people more involved in the park, to increase environmental awareness and to improve the park’s biodiversity. The funding enabled the park to have a dedicated volunteer coordinator and natural heritage officer and from there, the volunteering grew. Here are the stories of some of our volunteers.

Alec: Practical Conservation Volunteer

I was studying at Ayrshire College last year and part of the curriculum involved volunteering at Dean Castle Country Park. Although I live locally, I’d avoided going to the park as it didn’t feel like the kind of natural environment I was interested in; in fact it felt more like a big swing park. Neal and Jess, who supervised our volunteering, explained that changes were being made to increase biodiversity through volunteers. This encouraged me to do extra volunteering, as I could see the bigger picture for the future. Since I started volunteering at the park, I’ve taken part in both wildlife and plant surveys as well as habitat improvement. I’ve also been given the chance to learn traditional skills, such as hedge-laying and scything. I now look forward to going to the park and feel that it will become a fantastic learning resource and a place that the residents of Kilmarnock will be proud of. I’ve enjoyed working with like-minded people, and feel that in the management and staff, the park is in good hands. Whatever work I’m involved in gives me another reason to visit the park in the future to see the results of what has been done.    

Dani (middle) on a Bumblebee Survey in the Park  (Jess Wharf)
Dani (middle) on a Bumblebee Survey in the Park (Jess Wharf)

Dani: Survey Volunteer

I started volunteering at Dean Castle Country Park to gain more competitive experience to look for a conservation job. Initially I conducted surveys with a group of other volunteers which increased my knowledge about many taxa I wasn’t familiar with, such as raptors, moths, butterflies, and bumblebees. Although I started survey volunteering, I got involved in other tasks like building an owl box, planting a willow maze and hedge-laying. The volunteers are led by two dedicated members of the staff who are always available to answer volunteers’ questions to better understand how to manage a country park for the sake of its wildlife and visitors. There is at least one volunteering day a week but you can also do some surveys on your own, as I am currently doing for raptors and butterflies. In this way, I always manage to volunteer a few days every month while doing a full-time job. Alongside learning so much about wildlife, I have also met many people with my same passion for nature which have made my volunteering experience even more enjoyable.

Stuart: Rural Skills Volunteer Trainee

Stuart (middle) learning to lay hedges (Jess Wharf)
Stuart (middle) learning to lay hedges (Jess Wharf)

My first experience of volunteering at Dean Castle came last autumn when I came along for a volunteering event at the park. It was great fun working with the other volunteers and getting stuck in getting our hands dirty – in fact, I remember being disappointed that I had to leave early for work! Although I’ve always enjoyed the beauty of the outdoors I confess that I didn’t actually know too much about it and I wanted to change that! I thought volunteering at the park would be a fun way to learn more about nature. Since then I’ve been volunteering regularly and have had chances to gain skills and knowledge in all sorts of areas. One day you could be learning the lost art of hedge laying, the next you could be surveying the plant life in a sunny meadow, or be out on a rainy night hunting for newts in the ponds. No matter what’s to be done around the park it is always a relaxed and fun day and the feeling that you’re doing something positive for the inhabitants (human and non-human!) of your local area only adds to that. I’ve actually enjoyed my experiences so much that I’m now actively pursuing a career in the countryside sector and start studying at college this September! But even if you’re not looking for a career change, I’ve found conservation volunteering to be a fantastic experience. It keeps you active, gives you opportunities to learn new skills and meet new people, and is really just very relaxing and good fun – I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to try it.

From a low base of practically zero, we’ve built our annual volunteer visits to over 600 since the start of the HLF programme. It’s given the park a resource of committed and passionate people keen to champion the park’s wildlife and get stuck in doing practical things to help this cause. Looking at the volunteers who have contributed their stories to this article, they have one thing in common; they started volunteering in one volunteer role and became drawn into all sorts of different aspects of the park. This feels like the key to success in conservation volunteering both for volunteer managers and for volunteers: offering or seeking the chance to grow outside of an initial role and expanding skills and interests to keep them coming back. For volunteers, this is the path to the broad skill-base that this sector demands and for those of us lucky enough to be already working in the sector, we get to spend our time with dedicated and enthusiastic people ready to help whatever the task in hand.

Join our volunteer team at Dean Castle Country Park or just have a go on one of our conservation volunteering holidays: email Laura at

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with RSPB on 18 September 2017

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