How volunteering helped Kent Wildlife Trust staff with their conservation careers

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Logo: Kent Wildlife Trust

By Alana Skilbeck, Wilder Kent Volunteer Officer

Group of people planting hedges
Hedge planting (Kent Wildlife Trust)

I am currently the Wilder Kent Volunteer Officer and my role is to develop and lead our volunteer programme across the organisation. I have worked at Kent Wildlife Trust since February 2019 and have previously worked for other conservation organisations including Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and the RSPB. I am passionate about volunteering and conservation action and improving engagement with the conservation sector

Here at Kent Wildlife Trust - the county’s leading conservation charity - we have approximately 150 members of staff, all with varying backgrounds and experiences of working in our sector. Like many conservation organisations, there is one thing that most of our staff have in common: how they utilised volunteering experiences to help them with their conservation careers.

The conservation sector can be a daunting area to break into due to competition from other candidates as well as the vast number of disciplines you can enter. Volunteering allows you to experience a wide range of conservation roles and understand how different organisations work before applying to any permanent positions. Volunteering also allows you to develop a myriad of new skills that can be highlighted when applying for job roles.

Regular volunteering can also enable a career change. If you have gained skills from working in another sector, volunteering with a conservation organisation will help you learn how they operate and where your skills can be utilised to achieve their goals.

Group of volunteers at Bitchet Common holding tools and clearing bracken
Sevenoaks Greensands Common Volunteers at Bitchet Common (Kent Wildlife Trust)

A common experience shared by many of our Kent Wildlife Trust staff was finishing a university degree in a subject, either conservation and non-conservation related topics, and struggling to know how to take the next steps towards gaining a conservation role. Staff utilised volunteering placements and roles to gain experience, learn new skills and receive knowledge from staff and volunteers. Below are the experiences of three of our staff members who left university with a range of experience:

“After leaving university with a degree in zoology, I had no idea that UK conservation even existed. After a few years working in a different (and very stressful!) career, I started volunteering with Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust. Volunteering was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done - I learnt more there about UK wildlife than in my three years at university. What started as a way to get outdoors led to an entirely new career. 10 years on and I'm running the first UK bison project.”
Stan Smith - Wilder Landscapes Manager, Kent Wildlife Trust

“After leaving university, I had no real idea of what I was going to do next. I spent a couple of years volunteering with lots of organisations, trying out different things. One volunteering experience opened opportunities to the next. I eventually ended up as a long-term volunteer at the Welsh Wildlife Centre which gave me the experience and confidence, I needed to get a traineeship at the Somerset Wildlife Trust, eventually leading to a 25-year career with the Kent Wildlife Trust.”
Ian Rickards – Area Manager, Kent Wildlife Trust

Volunteers in a field clearing out pipes
Swale vols clearing out pipes at Oare August 2022 (Kent Wildlife Trust)

“I studied conservation and animal biology at university which was great but I wanted to get a feel for what working in conservation was really like so I volunteered throughout my degree at wildlife centres, community groups and eventually for WWF. I did everything from collating data in BioBlitz sessions to monitoring crocodiles and organising fundraising events. This gave me a real taste for the variety of work you can do as a conservationist. From that volunteering, I got my first paid job with WWF and have now been working in conservation for nearly 20 years!”
Helen Pitman - Wilder Blean Landscape Development Manager, Kent Wildlife Trust

Volunteering can take various shapes and forms but I believe the best three formats to help you gain experience of conservation organisations are:

1. Traineeships / Volunteer Placements – 6 - 12 month placements that require a regular commitment and can include training bursaries or a small salary.
2. Volunteer roles that require a fixed commitment e.g. weekly or monthly – showing a regular commitment to a role alongside other pursuits shows you can manage your time effectively and work as a team.
3. Micro volunteering – short, bite-size tasks that have a low- commitment e.g. taking photos, proof reading and liking posts on social media. These allow you to use skills and create experience to add to your C.V.

Four volunteer trainees learning how to use chainsaws
KWT Volunteer Trainees on a Chainsaw Course (Kent Wildlife Trust)

I completed a Traineeship with Yorkshire Wildlife Trust which allowed me to gain skills in people engagement, leading wildlife experiences, working with volunteers and practical reserve management. This 9-month placement provided an important stepping stone and allowed me to pursue a role with the RSPB.

Kent Wildlife Trust host similar placements and have allowed many to experience what a role in the conservation sector could look like. Aimee Scott, a current High Downs and Dover Wilder Reserves Volunteer Trainee at Kent Wildlife Trust, explains how the role has helped her:

“I was working an admin job and I was often wondering, what if I decided to do something else, something that made a difference to me and others. The biggest problems for me were the fear of the unknown and giving up a financially stable job. Saying that, what volunteering has meant for me is that I can get a taste of what that alternative job might be like, it means I can decide if I truly want to pursue this further or perhaps something similar. Ultimately the biggest benefit is the experience as you can’t teach that in a classroom. I am very glad that I took this opportunity, it has opened my eyes and I look forward to where it will lead me next.”

I wanted to close with one last quote from Alison Ruyter, Area Manager, at Kent Wildlife Trust Livestock Manager, because it shows how one volunteer role can lead you on an exciting and career changing path.

“In 1999, I said yes to being a volunteer livestock checker for Kent Wildlife Trust's new pair of Exmoor ponies that had just arrived. I had no livestock experience before that.”
Alison Ruyter

The rest is history and now Alison is a Livestock Manager and the mastermind behind our ground breaking Wilder Grazing Conservation Strategy.

To find out more about opportunities at Kent Wildlife Trust click here
Not local to Kent? Take a look at volunteer opportunities across the Wildlife Trust movement to find an opportunity near you - click here 

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: 18/01/2023

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