Giving a little back to nature, and getting even more back in turn
Last autumn, I started volunteering for Surrey Wildlife Trust. For years, I've been wandering the commons and woods which SWT manage in my area, so when I became free to do so, it seemed like a good idea to give a little back. What really happened, is that I got so much more back myself, from the experience of meeting like-minded folk, learning more about nature and wildlife conservation, and enjoying working in the great outdoors.
I'm not sure what I expected when I turned up on my first volunteer day, at Thundry Meadows by the River Wey. Maybe a little path clearance, tidying up, repairing fences or whatever, all things which I've done since. However, that first day was hard work, cutting and pulling out holly trees. What I learnt that day, was about how removing a species that is just getting a little thick isn't just about stopping it getting out of control, it can also literally change the local landscape and the wildlife that lives there. Cutting back these prickly green trees not only allows other plant life to grow, but it also encourages the Belted Galloway cattle, that are used to graze this site, to come into areas that they would otherwise avoid. This in turn keeps the greenery down, helps the diversity of this habitat, and thus the diversity of the species living there. To my eye, the bonus is that it makes the landscape more attractive too, encouraging a mixture of beautiful shaded woodland, and sunlit glades.
On other days, we've cut down a lot of trees. Normally small ones, birch and pine, to maintain the open commons and heathlands, that are such an important and rare part of the Surrey landscape. Now birch and pine are two of my favourite trees, they bring back so many memories of being in my favourite northern landscapes; the glens of the Highlands and the rocky terrain of Scandinavia, where the pines are wizened and short due to the harsh climate. So, its a funny feeling to be cutting down one of your favourite species just as its growing towards being a fine specimen itself, and I find myself apologising to them before taking the saw to their tactile bark. However, when you look back at your work, and see that you've prevented an area of special heather heath from becoming a dense woodland, encouraging life, from dragonflies to lizards, via larks and adders, to make this their home, you realise that you really have made a difference.
Another task we've spent a number of weeks on over the winter is coppicing a hazel woodland on the flanks of the Surrey Hills. I really enjoyed that one, learning a new skill, something that links us to woodland management over many centuries, continuing a great tradition that not only encourages a fantastic habitat for creatures such as dormice, but also provides the wood that can then be used for fencing or other purposes at different reserves.
Its not all hard work. During winter months, when the risk of disturbing ground nesting birds or other wildlife is low, much of the cleared "brash" is burnt. Who doesn't like a large bonfire on a cold winter's day? There are plenty of tea breaks and a long relaxed lunch, where the volunteers chat, often about nature and relax a little. On a few occasions, we've walked the reserves as a group, learning from each other as well as the knowledgeable and friendly leaders, looking for work needing done at the same time as just exploring new places.
To be honest, though, for me the main reward is working in the outdoors. Though the weather can be mixed, and we don't stop for a little rain, being outside in these wonderful natural places is a joy at all times. Working whilst buzzards and red kites wheel overhead, chiffchaff call in the trees, and butterflies flit amongst you hardly ever feels like real work. Occasionally, I've experienced special moments, such as when a peregrine cruised overhead as we cleared the brambles at the bottom of the quarry where it would soon be building its nest. Physically, its great exercise, though there is no pressure to do more than you want to do so you can take it at your own pace. I've come to love these times, a real contrast to the time I spent in front of a computer screen on other days, another way to enjoy the quiet wonder of the southern English countryside, but a way that actively helps to care for these special places.
There are Trusts all over the country, each under the umbrella of The Wildlife Trusts, so if you're interested it will be easy to find one near you on their website. Other organisations, such as the RSPB and National Trust, as well as many small ones, also need volunteers. You can simply join up to support them, find out about your local countryside and ways to visit it, or if, like me, you have a little spare time, why not try volunteering?