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When the advice is "Volunteer!" how do you live?

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By Emma Parker, Ranger, Hopetoun House

Koniks foal kissing Emma on the forehead
Blessed by a Konik foal (Lesley Dewar)

I began my conservation career in 2008 by becoming a Conservation Volunteer (CV) with the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). I had struggled with career direction since leaving school; had taken a gap year between school and my undergraduate degree to work in London, and then another gap year after university to go travelling. Education was a passion and I had built up experience working with children since my S3 work placement. I knew, however, that I needed to build up my practical, wildlife ID and group-leading experience. Luckily one of our neighbours had worked as a Ranger for a very long time, so I went to her for advice and, “Volunteer!” was her answer. With suggestions of the NTS, Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT), and other local groups, I started researching what I needed to do. It took me until 2019, several knockbacks, an MSc, and a career change into teaching before I got my dream job working as a Ranger for the Hopetoun House Preservation Trust, near South Queensferry. During that 11-year period I amassed a wide range of experiences, which included short-term volunteering, some Seasonal Ranger work and two long-term volunteer roles.

Group of people climbing up the Glencoe Zigzags
A group scramble up the Glencoe Zigzags-I'm in the hat! (Rachel McKerral)

My first volunteer role was with the NTS as an Ecology Volunteer at Glencoe in 2012. I had been offered the Education Volunteer role two years previously but had turned it down for a paid Seasonal Job at NTS Culzean Country Park. At the time I had been at home for six months after graduating with my MSc and I knew I would need to save a bit before considering a long-term volunteer role. Having had a life-long desire to spend more time in Glencoe (I had only once passed through it when I was 16), it broke my heart to turn them down, but consoled myself knowing that I could apply again for another year. The staff were really understanding of my reasonings, and I learned from them that it was common for people to apply and be offered places, but then turn it down, or leave after only a short time due to financial constraints.

Although I was a recent postgraduate, and felt poor, I was fortunate enough to have some savings from an inheritance. I used some to pay for my MSc, and some of my living expenses, while I studied. I had locked the bulk of it away for a house deposit and didn’t want to rely on it indefinitely. An additional safety net was my permanent residence with my mother, to which I returned after each role came to an end. Having these backups really helped me stay on my feet and gave me a bit of grounding to flit between jobs, and the flexibility to take on long-term volunteer positions.

Emma Parker hiking up Glencoe
Me on my first walk up Glencoe (Nicole Dunn)

Glencoe required us to work full-time – 5 days out of 7. One of these days provided paid work on the Outlook Desk in the Visitor Centre where we advised on local walks, places to eat, and where the “Lost Valley” – aka Coire Gabhail – was. The NTS gave us £100 PPE budget, so I bought myself some good waterproof trousers (which I still have), and they provided soup and a sandwich for lunch from the café on workdays. We were given accommodation in the old Achnacon bothy and told that previous volunteers supported themselves through working at the nearby Clachaig Inn. My time at Culzean and the work on the Outlook Desk was enough to tide me over for the summer, and my initial experience with the management was enough to decide that it wasn’t for me. My commitment was the volunteering, so any additional job must fit in and be flexible, like the Outlook Desk. I needed to invest time and energy to my Ecology role for my future career. The additional benefit of working in the middle of nowhere is there is literally nowhere to spend your money, except on rent, food, petrol, and broken cars.

My second volunteer placement came in January 2014. I was offered a Volunteer Internship with the RSPB at the Loch of Strathbeg and in the absence of any paid work offers at that time, I took this opportunity. I was excited to change organisations, and habitats! No unpaid volunteer roles are the same. You find yourself flitting between environments, habitats, and places, and you must have a wide skillset to do this. There was less opportunity for part-time jobs to support myself as the RSPB expected a mixture of weekend, evening, and early morning work. It was near impossible to find work that would have fitted in with the requirements of this role. Bearing in mind that a lot of these posts are in rural locations where you are limited to seasonal tourism and hospitality as an additional source of income.

Landscape picture of the Loch of Strathbeg
Loch of Strathbeg (Emma Parker)

Glencoe is a large, well-known visitor attraction, which comes with its own challenges, and working at Strathbeg was totally different. It was much more remote, there were fewer visitors, and more practical and survey work to do. There was a herd of Konik ponies who managed the habitat through grazing, so their welfare was a big part of the role, which I loved having grown up around horses. We were provided with accommodation and use of a vehicle to get to the shops for groceries, and for the interns we were given three different qualifications (mine were First Aid at Work, a trailer towing licence, and NPTC Chainsaw (felling up to 30cm diameter)).

At the end of the Internship, I decided I’d had enough of working in the back of beyond with little to no social support or structure. I applied to teacher training and was accepted for the following August. After my probationary year as a teacher, I was clear that I needed to be back outside. The lure of nature was too strong to resist. I longed be outside in all weathers instead of inside in all weathers (remember what it was like to be stuck in school on glorious sunny days?), to exchange fluorescent classroom strip lighting for sunlight glittering on the mountaintops, to swap the staffroom chat of overworked teachers for the songs of warblers. Along with my previous, varied Ranger experience, my education experience and qualification were what clinched the Hopetoun job for me, and so I’ve come full circle.

Emma and Ash the Koniks pony
Me and Ash, my favourite of the Koniks (Lesley Dewar)

I can see both sides of the argument about whether long-term volunteering is morally acceptable. On the one hand, the organisation is providing very little (compared to a salary and regular up-to-date training) for often months-at-a-time of work. Granted it can be a gamble as to how much support the volunteer will need, but I’ve certainly found this no different when it comes to hiring people for paid work. But, at least in my experience, the knowledge and skills gained when working a long-term volunteer role can often far outweigh the financial and social impacts.

Many people have dependents to support which would make moving to remote places for months at a time difficult. Think about the safety nets you might have around you, save up by working other jobs, investigating sponsorship, or asking for a sabbatical are all possibilities that can help support you during long-term placements. CJS have published various articles (here) on volunteering and the various opinions on it. Experience of being a volunteer is hugely valuable for jobs that involve working with or managing volunteers - you could almost see it as an essential job specification. Offers of accommodation, lunches (if there’s a café on site), qualifications, a PPE budget and free vehicle use for weekly grocery shopping are all things that organisations can make these placements more accessible. Other options could be asking volunteers to only work three or four days a week so that a day or two could be reserved for paid work (if it’s feasible in the area).

When writing this article, I asked for feedback, and one that stood out (that I agree with) was from my older Ranger friend who said, “[Volunteering has] been part and parcel of the conservation scene since the beginning of the conservation scene! And for a huge number of volunteers, it's all they want to do - they don't want to get a full-time job in conservation.” Whether you can make long-term volunteering work for you will depend on your individual situation, but it certainly helped me explore and understand what area of conservation I wanted to work in, and it provided me with the essential skills and experience to ultimately gain paid work. 

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with The Conservation Volunteers on 6 February 2023. Read the full issue here

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Posted On: 12/01/2023

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