After a whirlwind second year I was ready for a relaxing summer at home, but with the start of third year looming in just three months’ time, I wanted to make the most of my break. Reflecting on my second-year modules, words like “networking” and “volunteering” stuck out in my mind, especially from my Job Study assignment for Professional Practice for which I interviewed the Nature, Climate and Environment Officer for the Ulster Wildlife Trust.
James McAdie, the Operations Manager of Froglife Ecological Services, who I met during a fieldtrip module for a Great Crested Newt training day, suggested that volunteering and work experience were what prospective employers like himself looked for in applicants, as candidates often all had similar degrees. With this in mind, I browsed the internet for potential environmental volunteering opportunities, keen to gain experience in my local area.
After a few back-and-forth emails with the Volunteer and Training Coordinator for the Ulster Wildlife Trust, I rocked up to Bog Meadows Nature Reserve on a hot July Wednesday. Tucked away on the Falls Road in Belfast, adjacent to the M1, I was shocked I’d driven past this urban nature haven so many times and never noticed it.
The sunshine provided perfect conditions for a butterfly survey at Bog Meadows, and while completing a litter-pick simultaneously, we spotted Green-veined Whites, Speckled Woods and Peacocks to name a few. The rest of the day consisted of raking away hay to remove excess nutrients from the grass and cutting back ash trees which had dieback. There is always lots of work needed to keep Bog Meadows in great condition for people and wildlife, and to strike a balance between the two, this meant removing branches that could fall and obstruct the footpath in the soon to be stormy, winter weather.
On this day I met Conor, the ‘Wild Youth Northern Ireland’ leader for this reserve amongst others. The Wild Youth programme is a partnership between the Ulster Wildlife Trust and Belfast Hills, encouraging young people between the ages of 11 to 25 to volunteer in nature as a means of promoting wellbeing whilst earning bronze, silver and gold certificates based on the hours required for each. Having completed an Environmental Management undergraduate and a master’s in marine biology at Queens University, volunteering for the Ulster Wildlife Trust on-and-off for several years had helped him land his position. I secured my silver Wild Youth award by completing the required 25 hours training over 5 Wednesdays. Excitingly, this means I can progress to a Wild Youth ranger or leader next year, gaining additional volunteering qualifications such as the nationally recognised John Muir Explorer Award and a Lanta Qualification for operating commercial land management machinery, as well as practical work experience on different environmental and conservation projects.
Working several days at Bog Meadows really helped me understand the challenges of running a nature reserve and the issues that may arise. I soon became familiar with the term ‘outdoor gyming’ as Dawn and John, the local nature reserve’s leaders, relied on volunteers to aid them with the physical work required in conserving the sites – who are unfortunately in short supply. One day we had to clear a whole meadow of reeds and thistles as the reeds were poisonous to the cows that grazed the meadows meaning they dominated the area and would out-compete the meadow flowers. It’s safe to say that it’s as effective as an indoor gym.
My knowledge of ecology from university was really helpful when volunteering as I was able to understand the importance of removing invasive aquatic species and what procedures to follow, and working at Bog Meadows also complemented my studies as I spent my days putting my knowledge into practice such as by identifying flora and fauna. Another volunteer, Oisín, was very knowledgeable about native species and taught me how to identify different bees, while an evening bat survey taught me how to use specialist equipment to spot different species such as Leisler’s and Daubenton’s through echolocation.
If I were to give others in my position advice, I would tell them that every hour counts. I have to admit, I was at first disheartened to hear that without additional experience, my degree alone was unlikely to land me a job in the ecology and conservation industry. Taking a placement year wasn’t necessarily something that interested me, but I didn’t want to work for free after university either. The odd day volunteering for organisations like the Wildlife Trust does give invaluable experience and really helped me imagine what it would be like to manage a nature reserve as a full-time job. Once I’ve completed my undergraduate, if a full-time position was to come up, I believe my volunteering experience and familiarity with some of the employees of the Ulster Wildlife Trust would really boost my application, in addition to the qualification I received in return for my time as a volunteer.
In addition to Bog Meadows, I also spent several Friday mornings at my local community garden where my mum has been going for several years. It’s a green space run by the local community and has won awards from The Conservation Volunteers. This organisation often advertises different jobs, and after attending the gardening group, I was able to appreciate how important these projects are for the local community’s wellbeing and connecting communities to nature.
I was surprised how much experience I gained in less than 10 days of volunteering over the summer months. Initially I didn’t like the idea of working for free, but the experience has helped me feel more confident and qualified to apply for positions when I finish university, which will be a daunting experience in itself. It was nice to meet like-minded people and share knowledge, knowing that we were working for the greater cause of conserving nature while experiencing the benefits of nature connectivity for our own well-being. I’m looking forward to completing the Wild Youth Ranger and Leader qualifications next year and applying for positions in the world of ecology locally or abroad. With the latter, I’m looking forward to the South Africa field trip in March to learn more about ecological processes further afield.
Lucy is studying on our Environmental Sciences BSc(Hons) course.