Winter is coming – time to volunteer!
by John Bark, The Conservation Volunteers
Hardy folk who earn their living in the countryside generally agree with Alfred Wainwright that "There's no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing." But what if you are a volunteer? Given the choice, how many turn out when an icy east wind scythes across the moors or cold drizzle drenches fly-tipped urban scrub?
The good news is that a lot of people do! Last year, 127,000 people were inspired to connect with local green spaces across England, Scotland and Northern Ireland by community volunteering charity The Conservation Volunteers (TCV). Even in the depths of winter, TCV volunteers do vital conservation work at Local Nature Reserves, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, school grounds, waterways, wetlands, woodlands, coastal paths and urban parks. You will find them among the lakes of Fermanagh, in London’s Olympic Park, in Scotland’s biggest urban nature park, counting dormice in Kent, building stone walls in the heart of England and recycling wood in Inverness.
The charity provides transport, tools, equipment and project leadership through paid staff helped by ‘key volunteers’ who commit to a regular number of hours every week. The work to be done is agreed with landowners (TCV owns no land) and may be a one-off project or part of a longer-term management agreement. Financial support for TCV comes from local and national government, private organisations, charities, trusts, landowners and lotteries, including support received from the players of People's Postcode Lottery, whose recent £400,000 Green Trust funding has helped us support even more communities this year.
Volunteer enthusiasm does not drop off in colder weather, according to one TCV project leader in the South of England: “We probably get more work done in the winter. Warm weather can sap your energy and summer holidays often mean fewer volunteers are available.” (New people are more likely to start in summer though, especially students on vacation looking for work experience.) While there may be nothing better than a cold, calm November day for getting heavy work done, there are obviously limits where health and safety are concerned. Ice and snow might prevent access to a remote site, while project leaders need to keep an eye on team morale, perhaps calling an early finish on days when it just will not stop raining.
Volunteers include young and old from diverse backgrounds with varying experience of conservation volunteering. Many have a long-held passion for caring for the environment in general or a special local place. But there are always first-timers seeking a taste of the delights of outdoor work or looking to improve employment prospects by learning new skills. Some are employees of partner organisations who volunteer with their colleagues. Others want to improve physical fitness or overcome health issues – TCV’s Green Gym provides a way for people to take part in healthy outdoor activity at a pace that suits them.
TCV also brings lasting benefits to green spaces and local people by supporting a network of independent local Community Groups across the UK.
The seasons bring variation in the work carried out, but some things never change. For team leaders, that means site scheduling, risk assessment, safeguarding, training, publicity, tool care and ensuring adequate supplies of tea and biscuits. Many of the activities they manage can take place at any time of the year. These include health walks, citizen science, fence making, foot-path construction and resurfacing, reviving dead ponds, bench installation, way-marking and litter picking. Hibernacula, bug hotels, bird boxes and other homes for wild creatures are also made all year round, often by children who are delighted to get involved. TCV runs many activities for around 20,000 kids, including forest schools in term time to encourage a lifetime habit of caring for the environment.
In addition, there is a pattern of activities dependent on the seasons and the need to avoid disturbance to breeding wildlife.
Spring is all about preparation for growing, with volunteers busy in community gardens and allotments, building new beds, digging over soil and spreading compost. It's also the best time for walling and dune work, which are much easier to carry out in cooler weather.
Summer is for fighting weeds and invasive species: ragwort, bracken
and Himalayan Balsam meet their doom while thistles are removed from
grasslands and meadows, paths are cut back, community gardens weeded,
grass mown, hay cut and wild flower meadows scythed.
Autumn, after the nesting season is a good time for woodland work: coppicing, tree planting, tree felling, hedging, and scrub clearance. Volunteers can now also be seen in waders and wellingtons, caring for living community ponds. And as the nights draw in, the work goes on...
Winter is for digging over beds in community gardens and allotments, and yet more tree felling and rounds of scrub clearance, especially rhododendron, blackthorn, and bramble. It is also the season for warming bonfires, toasted marshmallows and mince pies.
Over nearly 60 years of conservation volunteering, TCV has enabled people to join in and feel good despite the Great British weather. This winter will be no exception, whether it brings a “Beast from the East” or a “Wimp from the West”. What about you?