Ten years on the reserves

I remember exactly where I was, a little over ten years ago, when I received The Phone Call. I’d pulled over into a layby on the A44, with minimal signal, to pick up the call with a shaking hand that was to tell me that I was being offered a job with the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. Only a year after the merger had taken place between West Wales and Glamorgan, I was one of three staff employed on the new HLF-funded project in west Wales, and I was to be given responsibility for around fourteen of Ceredigion’s nature reserves. Fresh from a season’s contract as seabird field assistant on Skomer, this was my first ever position of responsibility in land management. I’d spent many years volunteering on nature reserves and was a veteran with bowsaw and loppers, but as I soon discovered, there is a world of difference between delivering nature reserve management under instruction, and making the decisions that guide the work yourself. I had always wanted to work for the Wildlife Trusts, and was about to embark on the best job of my life.

Chris Lawrence, Richard Dodd and Lizzie Wilberforce in 2003

Chris Lawrence, Richard Dodd and Lizzie Wilberforce in 2003

Now in 2013, after five years managing the nature reserves in Ceredigion, and a further five years managing the nature reserves in Carmarthenshire, my job is changing. My excellent colleague Becca Killa is taking custody of Carmarthenshire, leaving me free to undertake the Conservation Manager role full time. After ten years of being out working with volunteers on the reserves every single week, this is quite a change, and has left me pondering the difference made both to me and to the reserves by those passing years.

One lesson I learned swiftly was that it takes years to really get to know a nature reserve. No two seasons are quite the same and each place is subtly different every year. It takes time to learn how the land reacts, which weather leaves it vulnerable, and how and when its wildlife thrives. Then there’s always that boundary dispute in that one little corner of the site that you never quite made it to before, that pipe that chooses to leak when you’re not sure of its course underground, and the Curious Incidents of the Visitors in the Night Time (really, people do some very odd things on nature reserves when you’re not looking). And then there is the poached, scrubbed up field that five years of mowing turned into a beautiful fen meadow, the excitement of seeing water voles and dragonflies taking up residence in newly created scrapes, and the joy of finding new species in residence for the first time.

Ten years is long enough to see these rewards for your effort in managing land, and it is a satisfaction like no other to look upon a nature reserve and to know that in your own small way you played a part in its future. But ten years is also long enough to see a lot of change in the fortunes of a small charity like ours too. It’s fair to say that when I started, finances had looked better. Money was tight and it was hard to deliver the work the HLF project prescribed. Lack of staff meant that some reserves had reluctantly been closed up; some woodlands had no public access. However I was also painfully aware of the enormous legacy of care, of management and monitoring, that my passionate and hardworking predecessors and their volunteers had handed to me, on the promise that I too worked hard to keep those sites special. It was a rapid learning curve, and intimidating and fascinating in equal measure.

Not long after I started in 2003, I held my first volunteer workparties. I recently worked out that over the ten years I’ve been working on our nature reserves, I’ve been supported by almost three thousand volunteer days. Three thousand- that’s the equivalent of a full time member of staff employed for twelve years, something I still can’t quite come to terms with. The incredible enthusiasm and dedication of the reserves volunteers has never ceased to impress and touch me. One of the first to join me was Geoff Powell, who deserves special mention. He had already been volunteering with the Trust for many years, and even after my ‘retirement’ to a more desk-based job now continues to support Em Foot in Ceredigion. Geoff exemplifies so many of the amazing things that volunteers mean to me- his dedication and loyalty to the work (even in the most dire of weather conditions, on days when I was in a bad mood, and that infamous day the river rose over our wellies), and the incredible contribution of his skills and enthusiasm meant that work was always interesting (and productive!). I have learned a huge amount from all my volunteers, from practical skills, to short tutorials in philosophy, arguments about evolution and even the odd chat about Big Brother or Heat magazine. No two days, or conversations, were ever the same.

So, as I step back from nature reserve management, I would like to pay tribute not just to the fabulous diversity of our reserves- that’s why we’re all here after all- but I’d also like to say a huge thank you to every single volunteer who donated an hour, a day, or in some cases many years, of effort. You are all bonkers, fascinating, enthusiastic, dedicated, and universally generous and hard working people and I salute you. I’ve watched the Trust go from strength to strength over the years and volunteers have always been, and will continue to be, at the heart of that. You made one of the best jobs in the world even better, and for that- thank you.

Lizzie Wilberforce