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Benefits and Challenges of Long-Term Volunteer Programmes

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Logo: Herefordshire Wildlife Trust

By Ian James

Robin at Lugg Meadows Nature Reserve (Paul Cooper)
Robin at Lugg Meadows Nature Reserve (Paul Cooper)

I started a year-long programme of volunteering 3 days a week for the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust shortly after graduating with a BA in International Development. I realised during my degree that it wasn’t going to be particularly relevant to the route I wanted to go down but at that point I was in too deep. Less than keen to sign up for a corporate graduate programme, the idea of a 12-month training role for a sector I was genuinely interested in seemed too good to pass up.

As much as it hurts to admit, work in conservation is very desirable and regrettably it’s an area of employment where the demand for work often outstrips its availability. This can too often act as a barrier to entry for those looking to change careers or who don’t have a relevant academic background. This is a shame because it excludes a range of potentially brilliant future conservationists - to their detriment and to the detriment of the sector.

Most long-term voluntary positions are tailored towards graduates or people interested in making a career change. As with all job listings there are a series of essential and desirable traits. Near-universally topping that list will be: 1. A passion for nature conservation 2. A willingness to work outdoors and in all weathers. This prioritisation serves an important purpose. The fact is that regardless of who you are, in times of such financial uncertainty, it is no small endeavour to commit 6-12 months primarily to unpaid work. What you can expect in return is that you ought to be able to enter such a programme with little more than enthusiasm for the role and a tolerance to rain and mud and, with engagement, leave it well set-up for a career in conservation.

A bee orchid at Lord's wood quarry (Herefordshire Wildlife Trust)
A bee orchid at Lord's wood quarry (Herefordshire Wildlife Trust)

This is not to say that these roles are not well-suited to people who already have a higher level of skill and experience. Wherever someone begins, there will inevitably be more than enough work to go around at whatever level of complexity a trainee is looking to tackle. The advantage of a fuller commitment is that there is a much higher ceiling to what can be taken on over a regular period of weeks or months than over the course of a series of single work days.

A great aspect of these roles is that most offer training that can then be used in the appropriate context which is vastly more useful than picking up skills here and there without the opportunity to practice them. Using a chainsaw safely and competently is a vital skill for practical woodland management. Getting qualified without organisational backing is a legitimate route, but if you live in an urban area it’s not easy to get practice in unless you have particularly inattentive neighbours. This applies equally to any range of tasks from monitoring and habitat management to tool maintenance and volunteer leadership. All principles work best with practice.

Fox at Queenswood Country Park and Arboretum (Herefordshire Wildlife Trust)
Fox at Queenswood Country Park and Arboretum (Herefordshire Wildlife Trust)

It is important to acknowledge that these roles can be financially challenging and that, at present, many are difficult to access for people with certain family or financial commitments. In my case, I relocated for the position without having any other work lined up and found myself volunteering by day and pulling pints by night. I had expected this to be the case, but what I hadn’t anticipated was how quickly the skills and qualifications I gained with HWT would open other avenues. Within a month of getting my basic first-aid and chainsaw certificates I was able to find relevant work with a local forestry company and on nearby farms - able to make ends meet and complement what I was learning on my training days. I could make it work, but I only had myself to take care of and for many people, that isn’t the case. Resultantly it’s very heartening to see the work many organisations are putting into creating opportunities specifically for people who may not otherwise be able to break into the sector due to financial stressors.

A major advantage of long-term volunteering programmes is that, unlike many roles, there is a give and take between the worker and the organisation that isn’t mediated by strict job requirements. A common organisational principle is that no work fundamental to a charity should be the sole responsibility of volunteers. As a volunteer this is fantastic because tasks can be organised by breadth of experience rather than necessity. Your presence at the organisation comes as a bonus. In exchange, it is the responsibility of the organisation to ensure that that contribution is recognised in kind by providing a tailored balance of variety and consolidation of learning that many people don’t see at any point in their career.

If you’d have told me 3 years ago what I’d be doing today I might not have believed you but thanks to the trainee programme I joined with HWT I’m now employed with them as Conservation Volunteer Support Officer. I can’t speak highly enough of the experience I had as a trainee and I’m very grateful now to be in a position where I can do the best by the trainees that come through in future to ensure they get as much out of the programme as I did. Herefordshire is a wonderful county and it’s a privilege to be working in it for the protection of nationally important wildlife sites.

You can learn more about Herefordshire Wildlife Trust’s volunteer trainee scheme here - https://www.herefordshirewt.org/jobs

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