We celebrated Volunteers’ Week earlier this month with a look at how volunteering can help people to break into a career in conservation. In our series of two blogs, you’ll meet volunteers who are aspiring conservationists but at different points in their working lives. In this blog, we’re off to Hadrian’s Wall to join Theresa Elliott…

Theresa Elliott from Morpeth is one of more than thirty people giving up their time to help struggling Curlews to breed more successfully on farms in the Haltwhistle and Bardon Mill area in Northumberland, northern England, while building vital hands-on skills and knowledge that she hopes will help her shift into a career in conservation.

“After 24 years as an English teacher, I felt ready for a change and a new challenge,” Theresa said. “I’ve always had an intrinsic love of the countryside and I wanted to be part of something that’s improving my local landscape and biodiversity, so last September I took the plunge and embarked on a Master of Science degree course in Conservation and Ecosystems Management at Newcastle University.”

Despite the demands of her intensive course, Theresa signed up as a volunteer on the Curlew LIFE project led by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and funded by the LIFE Programme of the European Union. It’s also supported at Hadrian’s Wall by the Fellfoot Forward project, led by the North Pennines National Landscape thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Theresa’s volunteer role has given her the chance to carry out a range of monitoring surveys on her allocated farm just north of Haltwhistle, which is one of 25 across the 15,000 hectare project area.

“I’ve been doing habitat assessments, predator scat surveys and bird surveys on the farm,” Theresa said. “All of those skills that I’m building are really helpful to me in developing my career. It’s been great to put in practice what I’ve been learning on my course.”

Charting a path

Being involved in Curlew LIFE has also helped her to hone in on the type of roles she’d be most interested in moving into.

“When you’re new to something as broad as conservation, I didn’t know which way I wanted to go exactly, and my experience with this project has helped me to understand a lot more about the world of conservation,” Theresa said. “I know now that I want a career that’s practical and hands-on, being part of a project or a conservation process where I would be able to see the results of the efforts and be part of the improvement in our local landscape, whether it’s securing greater biodiversity, developing sustainable land management or improving habitats for our vulnerable wildlife.”

Being part of the project has also reinvigorated Theresa’s love of Northumberland.

“It’s such a spectacular landscape to be on,” she said. “I heard my first Cuckoo of the summer while out doing my bird survey in May, and listening to the Meadow Pipits and Skylarks is always a treat. It’s great to work with the farmer as well, appreciating his passion for the Curlews. He’s watched them over the years and knows where they could potentially be nesting on his farm. They are such an iconic bird for Northumberland and the Hadrian’s Wall area especially.”

Curlew numbers have dropped by nearly a third in England since the mid 1990s and by almost half in the UK as a whole. This Red List species is now considered the most pressing bird conservation priority in the UK. Through the Curlew LIFE project, launched in October 2020, the RSPB is working with land managers and farmers in five key locations around the UK to help improve habitat and raise awareness of the issues facing this increasingly rare bird.

Valuable experience

Volunteering is a well-established pathway into conservation careers and it’s a route that Theresa would recommend.

“The volunteering is invaluable,” she said. “It’s been a great experience and I’ve had all the support I needed from the project team as well.”

Theresa doesn’t have to look far for proof of how volunteering can help with career development, with two examples in the Curlew LIFE team. The RSPB’s project lead for Hadrian’s Wall, Ian Cole, moved into conservation from an earlier career in education, thanks to a wide range of volunteering experience bolstered by the same MSc that Theresa is undertaking. Another Curlew LIFE volunteer took up a paid role as a seasonal monitoring officer with project, thanks to the experience he’d gained as a volunteer.

“Our volunteers come from different walks of life and they’ll all have their own motivations for helping on the project, but for those who want to get into conservation as a career there’s no doubt that volunteering is hugely valuable,” Ian said. “The methodologies we use for our surveys are well recognised in the industry and gaining that first-hand experience is a great thing to have on your CV, particularly with such a well-known organisation as the RSPB.”

More opportunities

While there are lots of potential benefits for the volunteers, the RSPB also gains greatly from their support. Volunteers have long played vital roles at RSPB nature reserves, from welcoming visitors through to habitat management, and the organisation has now set up a specialist team to support volunteers working off-reserve, the Species Volunteer Network. Will Bevan, the England project officer for the SVN, said:

“We want to invest in volunteers and help them to achieve their potential, whatever their age, background or previous experience. We feel that volunteers should get as much out of their roles as they give to them, and helping them to achieve their goals for personal development and growth is one way we can do this. Volunteers massively boost the impact we can have for nature and we’re hugely grateful to them for the vital contribution they make.”

The Curlew LIFE project draws to a close at the end of this year, but the RSPB offers many other volunteering opportunities on its nature reserves and beyond, with more information at www.rspb.org.uk/volunteering.