You love nature? You want to work in conservation? And now you’d like to gain some experience and spend a few weeks surrounded by birds, bees and badgers?
If you’ve been looking for environmental volunteering or internships, you’ve probably come across loads of placements in tropical locations (that sound very exciting, to be fair) that want you to pay for your volunteering, and mostly those prices are much more than the typical student can afford. But there definitely are other ways to gain some experience, see if conservation is for you, and have a lot of fun, too!
I spent two weeks as a residential volunteer in the RSPB nature reserve in Mersehead (Dumfries & Galloway) this summer. Just a few things we did:
Breeding bird surveys: We got up in the early hours of the morning (yes, it’s worth it!) and walked through all the fields looking for breeding birds. Most of them were lapwings, but also other waders, and I even got taught how to tell their age! One time, we even found a nest with two chicks that must have hatched just a few hours ago. Of course, if you find a nest by mistake, as we did, it’s important to leave it alone very quickly so the parents can return to it.
Natterjack toad monitoring: Mersehead has a healthy (and growing!) population of natterjack toads. This is a threatened species in the UK. Unlike common toads, they have a golden stripe along their back. I helped doing regular surveys, counting the tadpoles in their different life stages. With the warm weather we had lately, we also had to check whether some little ponds were drying out, in which case we had to catch the tadpoles and bring them to another pond. Not the easiest job!
Visitor centre: I spent quite a lot of time in the visitor centre, welcoming the visitors and showing them around. It was really quite nice chatting to so many people from so many different places. It depends on the reserve you’re going to whether manning the visitor centre is a part of your volunteering.
Practical work: We also did quite a lot of practical work, for example cutting back some shrubs or clearing a path. I always got all the help I needed and could ask any questions.
Bird ringing: When I arrived, I got told I could take part in a session of bird ringing. So exciting!!! I have been doing some ringing when I lived in Belfast and I’ve been waiting to get the opportunity to do it again. We set up the mist nets at 5 in the morning. It feels like everything that has to do with birds always starts early. But again, it’s totally worth losing a few hours of sleep. We didn’t get too many birds that morning, a lot of wrens, some robins and a reed warbler.
But the best thing happened later that day: I had just finished work and sat reading in the garden in front of the place where I was staying, when they started ringing the barn owl chicks (YES, there were barn owls nesting in the tree in front of the house!). Of course the book I was reading wasn’t quite that interesting, suddenly. I even got to hold a barn owl chick, and they are absolutely gorgeous!
In my opinion, residential volunteering is a great opportunity to find out if nature conservation is for you, and to get closer to nature. It is also a very easy way for students to gain experience. You will get a place to stay during your volunteering, so the only thing you have to pay for is your food and the transport to get to the reserve.
Work was really varied and gave me a good insight into nature conservation in the UK. From surveys to welcoming visitors to rock-pooling with the kids from the local primary school, I was included in all the day to day work. I would definitely do it again!