After finishing a postgraduate degree, I remained unsure of what I wanted to do next in my career. Research or science journalism? Abroad or in the UK? Stick in ornithology or branch outside of birds? I settled on applying for a field assistant job, with the snag being that the vacancy didn’t actually close until the following spring. With half a year to wait and a desire to so something useful in the meantime, I applied for a residential volunteer placement at the RSPB. Now that I come towards the end of my five-month placement, I can say that it has been an eye-opening experience as to what nature conservation actually looks like in the UK.
Day to day, working at a nature reserve is repetitive, yet somehow each day is unique in a way. At my reserve, there are daily tasks that have to be accomplished just to keep the place going: the opening of bird hides (for visitors to watch birds, not where the birds can play hide-and-seek), filling bird feeders, checking for vandalism, locking up at the end of the day and so forth. However, a reserve is not designed once and then stays the same forever; it is a constantly changing place. Electrical fences are repositioned, sluices are made to cross creeks newly developed, brash barriers are created to keep trespassers at bay, willow needs to be cut – the list could go on indefinitely. After five months, it feels like I’ve seen every task possible, but that definitely isn’t the case.
The most varied of days are our volunteer work party days on Tuesdays and Thursdays. A collective of retirees and students gather to work on a different project each work party day, and this usually means doing tasks where a lot of hands are needed. The less attractive of these jobs involved shifting a lot of gull poop off of islands in our lakes. The aim here is to throw away the poop, followed by cleaning the cockle beneath and adding more where needed, in order to provide an alluring breeding site for terns come the spring. The work is satisfying as it’s evident how much difference we make. At least, it’s satisfying until the following week when you see the gulls start to cover it in poo once more. My favourite of the work party days remains when we have our ‘burn days’, and burn all of the natural waste that can’t be composted. And it’s not my favourite just because we get marshmallows.
What was eye-opening about my placement is the lack of respect that conservation workers sometimes face. It comes from two main directions: those that care about nature, and those that don’t. Bird watchers are usually wonderful people, but occasionally there are visitors with a lack of consideration that will leave litter, scold members of staff on how the site should be run, and even, on occasion, urinate where they shouldn’t round the site (even more bizarre when they were caught doing so not far from the Visitor Centre toilets). From the other side of the scale, the reserve where I work has been plagued by thefts over the years from local residents. In fact, on my very first day, two of the gates had been smashed in. Before my time, a quad bike and gator (a fun little tractor-like vehicle) had even been stolen. It amazes me that someone could steal from a nature charity, and it upsets me that the staff at the reserve have to deal with such anti-social behaviour every year, when all they want to be preoccupied with is providing habitats for at-risk bird species.
It isn’t all doom and gloom, though, and I definitely have enjoyed my time. While you are provided with accommodation and transport costs to work, I did need savings to pay the rest of my way here. It was worth doing, I feel, though after five months the lack of earning can start to creep up into annoyance. Here’s hoping it pays off with the job application.
Words by Olly Dove
Olly recently completed her MSc. in Taxonomy and Biodiversity at ICL and the Natural History Museum.