December 21, 2021
March 7, 2022
Most nature recovery projects that you will have heard of are practised by large organisations (the National Trust, Woodland Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB) who operate their sites through a mixture of staff and volunteers. Equally, farm estates proceeding down this path often maintain a core body of staff too, but then may turn to volunteers for further support. Smaller holdings, and certainly private gardens may not benefit from any staff, making the role of volunteers all the more important.
What I hear you cry, are the advantages of volunteers? Why have them?
Well I'm sure you will have spotted the glaringly obvious benefit, that you don't have to pay them. Now while this is undoubtedly true and can really save you a packet in wages, or contractors, please don't fall under the misapprehension that volunteers are free. You will need insurance to protect them, hot drinks and biscuits to fuel them, possibly training courses to upskill them, and definitely a barbecue, bonfire or party goes a long way towards motivating them. If you are a larger venture you may have to pay staff to organise and support volunteers.
For all that, volunteers are a great resource. They are usually highly motivated and take great satisfaction from their role. They will often work at ridiculous hours of day or night, without clocking in or out like a contractor. Working together, you will be surprised by how much work they can get done. They can reach places that machinery can't. They are often local, so take real pride in the project and can be excellent ambassadors for it. Many have diverse and highly useful skills, including management, ecology, forestry, husbandry or machinery skills, whilst others are often happy to be up-skilled, and can make themselves as vital as most employees. After all, would you rather spend £300 on a contractor to chainsaw some branches off a tree, or to send a volunteer on a training course to use a chainsaw hereafter?
So if they are so indispensable, are there any cons to involving volunteers? Well, let's face it, if you want to dig a lake you may just have to get the JCBs in; they can't tackle everything. And whilst some volunteers will have experience of surveying for plants and animals, path building, hedges laying etc., many won't. This lack of professional understanding will require managing or the task could be poorly completed or even cause damage to the site. Hence, they may need guidance, supervision and/or organisation to complete tasks; certainly at first. And that will involve your time or possibly your money, if you would rather someone else do it for you. Also, don't forget you'll need to purchase personal injury and public liability insurance for your volunteers and their actions. And this in turn will usually require the production and implementation of risk assessments to protect all parties, including you, the landowner.
So where do you go to find volunteers? Well, there are actually several options. Firstly, while I might cheekily point out that you can’t buy volunteers off the shelf, like a chainsaw, or billhook; that’s not wholly true. There are organisations out there that support local community volunteering like the BTCV, that may help you complete tasks that benefit local nature recovery. Furthermore, your local branch of the Wildlife Trusts will have plenty of volunteers that you may be able to utilise through the Trust, if your land management aligns with their aims for the area. This may also be true of other organisations like the National Trust, Woodland Trust, RSPB, local council parks department etc., if you are linking up to, or supporting their site, possibly by creating complimentary habitat.
However, better by far, is to have your own volunteers that will form part of your long-term project family going forward. These are always some of the best relationships to forge and one of the most rewarding aspects of working with nature - bringing people and wildlife together to the benefit of both. Now how do you find these people? Well I would say where possible, local is best - they are part of your landscape already and therefore, having a vested interest in improving it, are more likely to become dedicated colleagues. Locals may often be flexible, and because they live round the corner, can turn up at the drop of a hat, or even act as caretaker when you’re away. Advertise in the town/village hall, on local facebook pages or websites; you could even ask down the pub. Alternatively, hold an open event to gauge local interest, or host a BBQ/garden party.
To attract more professionally skilled volunteers consider advertising on websites like www.countryside-jobs.com, www.environmentjob.co.uk, www.naturevolunteers.uk or to attract temporary, paying volunteers from further afield maybe consider www.volunteerworld.com. Larger ventures may even consider this as an income stream, catering to both UK residents and international volunteers that fancy immersing themselves in your project for a week or two. Maybe ring or email the nearest university school of ecology, environment or agriculture to put the word out that you are looking for interested volunteers. Another great source of skilled amateurs and professionals alike are local scientific interest groups. Most counties will have their own bat, butterfly, plant, mammal, BTO (birds), invertebrate and ARG (amphibian and reptile) groups who are often expert on surveying and monitoring their chosen section of flora or fauna.
Undoubtedly, volunteers can be an incredible benefit to your nature recovery project, and for those with limited funds and anything more sizable than a garden, I would go so far as to say they are nearly indispensable. Just don’t forget that they may need managing, at least initially. However, volunteering is most definitely a two way street, with volunteers all the richer for their role in the natural world. Furthermore, Rewilding Britain have found that rewilding projects increase volunteering opportunities thirteenfold; just think of all those people spending time in the great outdoors as a result. So, recruiting volunteers is essentially a win-win, you help your community and your venture; what’s not to love?
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