Find out about residential volunteering in our fourth Volunteers' Week blog. Sarah Livingstone was a residential volunteer at our Mersehead reserve from October 2016 to March 2017 and has written about her time spent with us.
What is it like being a residential volunteer?
Photo by Forbes Rogerson
After arriving at RSPB Scotland Mersehead in October last year and having my first tour around the reserve, it was hard to imagine what kind of work I would be doing over winter as a residential volunteer, and what impact it would have over time. To my untrained eye the fields looked all-too similar, as did the birds on the wetlands and in the hedgerows! By the end of my time here I could confidently do a Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS), and conduct a weekly count of the Svalbard barnacle geese. The fields also revealed their own characteristics too, not just in relation to their habitat management and structure, but in terms of the work I have done in each or memorable wildlife sightings I had.
One of the main projects we worked on was improving an area for natterjack toads. By clearing an area of scrub and creating more scrapes for ephemeral pools, we hope to increase the area in which they can breed. This will hopefully see the toad population expand further and encourage them to spread eastwards down the Solway coast.
A lot of this work could not have been done without the help of our trusty Tuesday volunteers either. This group turn up every week, keen to help out and get stuck in to reserve work. It’s a great way to tackle some of the bigger tasks that need doing, and the social aspect takes out the monotony of some of the more repetitive tasks. We’ve cleared out the old translocation pools that are now redundant since the toads have moved into natural habitats. Taking out the liners that were holding the water in involved a lot of digging to reveal and remove them, only to put all the sand back in!
Photo by Eric Neilson
It all pays off in the end though and not just for the toads! In December two of our hardy volunteers, Doug and Pam were presented with the Puffin Long Service Award in recognition of their incredible 10 years of volunteering for the RSPB at Mersehead! They have seen the reserve change a lot over the years and it has been great to learn from them about how Mersehead has progressed. This historical context is invaluable and has made me appreciate the ever-evolving work that goes in to a reserve.
On top of all of this I got to live on the reserve and that was a huge part of my enjoyment of this experience. Wildlife does not work 9-5 so quite often I found myself getting out in the mornings to watch the roe deer in the fields, and watch the treecreeper and goldcrest flitting about in the woodlands. Many an evening was spent up near the reedbeds too, watching the increasingly spectacular starling murmurations. We estimate there were at least 50,000 roosting in the Mersehead reedbed this winter. There is so much happening once you take notice, and waking up every day on the reserve you soon become sensitive to any changes in the environment.
Whilst volunteering here, the natterjacks have been in hibernation, but it is great to know that the population at Mersehead is thriving and that the work we are doing will contribute to their future success.
By far the highlight of this reserve is the barnacle geese. One of my favourite moments was witnessing them move from their roost on the mudflats at sunrise-thousands of them creating a noisy canopy overhead. Seeing the geese fly over every day to begin feeding, counting them each week, and having them constantly yapping in the background whilst working in the fields, it was hard to imagine Mersehead without them when they leave.
Overall, volunteering has given me a fantastic, memorable experience, there is always plenty to get involved with.
Catch up on our other blogs celebrating our volunteers as part of Volunteers' Week 2017 here, here and here.
If you've been inspired to find out more about volunteering for us click here.
The Flow Country, located in Caithness and Sutherland, is home to the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe - so vast that it can be hard to take in!
To celebrate the start of a Flows to the Future touring exhibition, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, taking the Flows to people across the country we have a guest blog from Professor Des Thompson, Principal Adviser on Science with Scottish Natural Heritage, which pays tribute to this incredible landscape.
The Flow Country – five reasons to be thankful
The Flow Country is an amazing, special place. For those of you that know it you’ll understand how awe inspiring it is. This touring exhibition is an exciting way to connect people who haven’t experienced the Flows to this unique part of Scotland. While we have much to be thankful to the Flow Country for, here are five reasons I feel deserve celebrating.
First, the Flow Country is vital for staving off the insidious impacts of climate change. It’s a massive carbon store. Binding up far more carbon than all of our forests, it is essential that we conserve and hold onto the carbon. However, some of the Flow Country has been damaged by forestry planting, reducing its ability to act as a carbon store. That’s why we are devoting so much graft to restoring the bogs, removing the trees that should never have been planted, and using the very best of engineering, science and traditional know how in the process. And here we should also give thanks to the many who have contributed funding for so much peatland restoration work, especially to the millions of people who buy lottery tickets, and to the political movers who have made this possible.
Second, the Flow Country is vast – in fact it is so big in extent that you sometimes need several Ordnance Survey maps simply to get to one mountain spied on the horizon! Studded with hummocks, hollows, pools and dubh lochans, it is no wonder that the Gaelic language has more than 100 words to describe ‘peat’. Nowhere else in Britain, can you be so alone yet so absorbed by the landscape
Third, it can be silent, it can be buoyant with the sounds of special birds, it can be ferociously windy, and often incessantly rain drenched - and on many days all of these things. The dreich, oceanic climate is perfect for blanket bog formation. No wonder only a tiny 3% of the world’s land surface is peatland, with blanket bog forming small outliers of that - with 15% of it here in Scotland. And in the Flow Country we have what the great peatland expert, Professor Hans Joosten, of the University of Greifswald, describes as ‘primus inter pares’ – a first among equals. That’s something to be thankful for
Fourth, this is a peopled land, and people and nature work exceptionally well here. For thousands of years, imperceptibly as the bog mantle has grown a millimetre or so each year, people have lived off the land and water - nourished and nurtured by the peat. The Flows to the Future Project, launched three years ago, has done tremendously well to harness everyone’s energy to secure a strong future for this area, which is captured in the new exhibition.
And fifth, we should lift our eyes to the truly international realms of what we have here. Surely, this totemic place must become a World Heritage Site – not simply placed on the so-called ‘Tentative List’, but instead declared as a World Heritage Site. There is excellent science carried out here, much of it in superb new facilities. More and more people are coming to the Flow Country to experience it for themselves, and the new walkways and viewing tower installed as part of the Flows to the Future project help them immerse themselves even more in the landscape. And, of course, there is the extraordinarily important landscape with its distinctively special wildlife. Despite these fantastic riches there are still threats to it which is why we must appreciate and value the wider ecosystem benefits. This is a special inspiring place, steeped in culture and nature, it deserves to be proclaimed as a World Heritage Site.
So, we have at least five reasons to be thankful for the Flow Country. Why not come along to the exhibition as it makes its way around the country and discover more for yourself?
The Flow Country Touring Exhibition can currently be seen at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh until September, before moving on to Glasgow, Stirling, Aberdeen and Annan, with more locations to be confirmed.
In our second blog celebrating Volunteers’ Week 2017 we hear from Lesley McCue who has been volunteering for RSPB Scotland since 2009 and leads the food foraging and healing plants events at one of our newest reserves, Loch Lomond.
Foraging Fun at Loch Lomond
I first became involved in volunteering for RSPB Scotland at the Lochwinnoch nature reserve in 2009. I used to take my daughter Nina to the reserve on a regular basis and staff and other volunteers suggested I volunteer myself. I have always been happy to turn my hand to anything and learn new skills. When the new RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond Reserve opened I was delighted when I was asked if I would like to volunteer there.
I love the wildness and peace and tranquillity of Loch Lomond Reserve and it has been a great privilege to watch it evolve over the past couple of years. It was when I started volunteering at Loch Lomond that I became involved with the John Muir Award. I had developed an interest in food foraging and I was asked if I could lead a food foraging walk and event. This was quite an exciting challenge for me and although I was a bit nervous of leading the walk the support and encouragement from staff at the reserve gave me the confidence to do this. I linked in the learning, preparation and the event itself with the John Muir Discovery Award.
Since completing the Discovery award I have gone onto complete the next two award levels, with the final Conserve award focussing on Healing plants and linked to a Healing Plants Guided walk and workshop I led at RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond in 2016.
Both the food foraging and healing plants events are being repeated again this year so with visitor volunteer duties at the new nature hub on the reserve and helping with family and external events I spend a lot of my spare time at Loch Lomond Reserve. As well as this last year I was able to help out at RSPB Scotland Baron’s Haugh reserve with a couple of family and external events and hope to spend time there again this year.
I have learned so much since I started volunteering with RSPB Scotland. My knowledge of bird and wildlife has increased greatly but I have rediscovered a childhood love for wild flowers and plants and could spend many an hour wandering through the fields looking for flowers.
While volunteering I have met many lovely people – staff, volunteers and members of the public. Recently I accompanied staff on a public guided walk of the reserve and there was a young girl there who was taking lots of photos. She told me that she preferred flowers to birds and wanted to take pictures of flowers. I spent a lot of time pointing out all the different spring flowers on the reserve and lent her my hand lens to see them closer. At the end she came up to me and thanked me very much and said that before the walk she had thought all yellow flowers were the same and that her dad was getting her a lens of her own. It is so special when you witness nature really touching someone’s life.
To read our first blog celebrating Volunteers' Week 2017 click here. If you'd like to find out how you can become involved in volunteering for us head over to our website here.