Developing volunteering for all in National Parks
By Daniel Greenwood, South Downs National Park Authority
Volunteering with the South Downs National Park Authority
The nature conservation sector is built on the work of volunteers. Much of the need for conservation volunteers comes from historical changes to the way British landscapes are managed. Notions of leaving areas to undergo ‘natural processes’ are becoming popular, but the pressing and current need to protect certain habitats depends on human activity. Chalk downland is one of the rare habitats that makes the South Downs National Park special. It is at its richest when it is managed either by us or our grazing animals.
At the South Downs we have around 300 active volunteers1 undertaking activities focused on the downland, heathland, rivers, wetlands and woodlands of the National Park. Land management is undertaken with the leadership of our ranger teams who operate across the 100 miles of the National Park, overseeing the work of volunteers under the moniker of the South Downs Volunteer Ranger Service2, a voluntary organisation which is approaching its 40th birthday. Our volunteers are motivated by different aims, some want to be part of the landscape-scale preservation of wildlife and heritage, some enjoy the physical activity of managing scrub, installing gates and fences, whereas others are driven to support with monitoring by concerns for wildlife or archaeology.
The South Downs volunteering network
One important thing to understand about volunteering is the differentiation between volunteers as individuals and the concept itself. For us, volunteering is the wider programme, structure and offer available to people who want to be involved in the National Park’s movement and activities. One key aspect of this for the wider National Park is to hold volunteering network meetings, where professionals, including charities and voluntary groups, local authorities and other organisations who provide volunteering opportunities relevant to the National Park’s purposes can meet. The meetings provide workshops and a chance for partners to offer their own perspectives on the direction of the Park. This is one of the key roles for a National Park to undertake, as by involving partners in the volunteering conversation, attempting to steer a clear direction of travel on the nature of volunteering in the Park, we can ensure that the good work being undertaken by other organisations is recorded, celebrated, supported and learned from. There is a huge amount of work going on in the South Downs, with our partners delivering 91,000 days of volunteering activity annually. You can see the South Downs volunteering map here3.
Developing volunteering to reach new audiences
There are many ways that people can become involved in protecting and enhancing the special qualities of a National Park. However, it requires a lot of work from an internal volunteering team and the relevant volunteer managers to ensure that opportunities are workable and resourced. Our volunteering and ranger teams have worked together to produce a volunteering development strategy and action plan to be delivered over the next five years. The plan is based on identified areas for diversification of opportunities within the National Park to improve the current volunteering offer and to engage people in volunteering who currently are not involved. Conservation as a movement has much to do to engage the next generation of volunteers and, while we can do much more, the fact is that volunteering will change with society. We are likely to see a shift in the way volunteering happens in future, with people likely to retire later and the causes needing volunteers adapting over time. The truth is that though volunteering is often mistakenly seen as something you can only do in retirement, people of the ‘millenial’ generation are finding new and exciting ways to make a difference.
Finding a role for young people in National Parks, now!
In September 2018 the EUROPARC youth manifesto4 was launched to inspire and establish a greater role for young people in the work and life of protected landscapes across Europe. The manifesto points to the exclusion that young people face in rural and protected landscape areas and answers in how to identify ways to increase youth involvement. The issues range from lack of educational or volunteering opportunities, to those involving the inability for young people to work and live in rural areas. At the South Downs we are piloting Youth Ambassador volunteer roles5 for two current volunteers. Our Youth Ambassafors will be getting involved in all manner of ways to promote the views of young people in the South Downs, from giving talks to partner organisations, writing articles for social media and other ways that they find worthwhile. We want them to lead.
One aspect we are keen to explore is micro-volunteering. We have identified a need to find ways for people to take part who work full-time or are unable to access regular, long-term opportunities for whatever reason. Smart phones allow us to be involved in a plethora of activities at any time, anywhere. In conservation, species monitoring apps like iRecord allow you to submit wildlife sightings that will then be sent to local record centres and experts for approval. This allows people to use their expertise to support conservation projects at a local and sometimes national level. On a personal level, this is currently the only form of volunteering I can fit into life alongside full-time work.
The conservation of natural and cultural heritage in the UK relies is underpinned by volunteers. Volunteering in a National Park provides one of the richest volunteering resources for people in the UK today but there is more that can be done to help people take part. Volunteering will change with society, meaning we need to find innovative ways for people to care about the causes that require volunteers to drive them and find ways for underrepresented people to be involved now. This process involves partnership working and a strategic vision for how we want people to be involved in future. If you’re interested in volunteering in the South Downs check out the volunteering map showing opportunities available across the National Park3.