From Scheme Volunteer to Trainee

I first became involved in the Dunsmore Living Landscape scheme as a volunteer in 2019 after completing a degree in Zoology. I was working in an office at the time and I found that being outside, surrounded by nature, once a week was literally a breath of fresh air. It also gave me a taste of the work involved in practical conservation, an area that has always felt incredibly important to me. So, when the latest Trainee position came up, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I officially started the role on the 1st January 2020 and who could’ve predicted the way that the following months would pan out?

As soon as the new year started we got straight into hedge planting at Stoneleigh Business Park. A huge task that took quite a number of volunteer days as well as a few work parties to complete. We also spent time thinning out trees at a local plantation and coppicing at Wappenbury and Ryton Wood. The process of coppicing is something that I knew nothing about until I started volunteering, so it has been really interesting to not only learn the traditional technique but to also develop an understanding of the important role it plays in creating a suitable habitat for dormice. In order to reduce the brash left from the coppicing we spent a volunteer day burning it, which could only mean one thing – toasting marshmallows! During this time, I also got the chance to help organise my first event; a winter tree ID course at Coombe Country Park led by our Living Landscape Manager. As a complete novice it was really fascinating to learn from someone so knowledgeable.

Then came March, and with it the constantly developing Covid-19 situation. It was initially decided that we would pause volunteering sessions and move to working from home whilst we waited to see how things evolved. As the news became more serious, it was clear that the way we had been working before would not be coming back any time soon. It was then decided that we would be furloughed whilst we were unable to carry out delivery. It felt like my traineeship had only just started and suddenly it had all come to a grinding halt. I tried to busy myself by taking part in the plethora of online ecology courses that were made available when the pandemic hit, from ladybird identification to animal tracking techniques. Looking back, these played a really important part in helping me through this time as they opened up a new way for me to continue learning and developing my skills. I also tried to give myself little projects to do in the garden; I created an insect hotel, made a mini wildlife pond out of an old half-barrel (that now has a resident frog!), and spent an inordinate amount of time nature watching. It’s safe to say that the outdoors provided a sanctuary for me during those months and so when the time came for my line manager Tom and I to resume project work it felt like such a positive step. That was until we realised the size of the task ahead; the construction of a deer fence between just the two of us. Although this was a slow process, there was no denying that it felt great to be out in a woodland again watching wildlife continue around me.

During the summer we were able to carry out grassland surveys, which are always difficult to begin with and involve a lot of time analysing a plant feeling you should know it but never remembering the name, and then eventually reaching the point where you feel quite confident – just as the surveying season comes to an end. In late August we celebrated National Moth Night and I was fortunate enough to spend an evening in Wappenbury Wood with a group of lepidopterists and a few moth traps, learning a great deal about the moths that inhabit our local area.

The autumn soon came and it was finally time to welcome back our volunteers. We picked up where we left off with the thinning work and coppicing, as well as path clearance at Ryton Village Meadow in preparation for a new mapped out circular walk. After Christmas we were back into another lockdown, although this time we were able to carry on with our work on outdoor sites. Much of our time was devoted to laying a section of hedge at Ryton Pools Country Park. This traditional technique was completely new to me and it definitely took some time to feel comfortable with it. I’m still by no means an expert, but it was one of my favourite skills that I’ve learnt during my traineeship, it feels very satisfying to step back and marvel at the structure you have created once complete.

One of the big challenges I experienced during my traineeship was gaining a chainsaw qualification. It was something that I had put off through the year for fear that I would struggle, especially as it isn’t something you can necessarily practice and prepare for. However, once I booked on to the course and was actually there I began to gain in confidence and passed both assessments first time. Something that has made me incredibly proud of myself.

Despite the fact that the last year hasn’t happened the way I thought it would, I feel really fortunate to have been able to gain a great deal of experience, work alongside like-minded people, and learn a whole host of new skills and I can’t wait to see where they take me.