In this second of two blogs celebrating Volunteers’ Week 2024, we travel to Scotland to join Cat Mackenzie, who’s hoping that volunteering with Curlew LIFE will help her gain her first job in conservation… 

A close-up of a woman wearing a hat with a Curlew design © RSPB Cat MacKenzieCat Mackenzie is halfway through a six-month residential volunteering placement at RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes nature reserve, as part of the Curlew LIFE project led by the RSPB and funded by the LIFE Programme of the European Union, with support from Cairngorms Connect.

Insh Marshes is one of five project areas around the UK where the RSPB is working to boost the breeding success of this Red List wading bird, which has declined by 61 per cent in Scotland since the mid 1990s and by almost half in the UK as a whole. The species is now considered the most pressing bird conservation priority in the UK.

“Being the Curlew LIFE residential volunteer is a great opportunity for someone like me who aspires to have a career in conservation,” Cat said. “When I started, I knew next to nothing about Curlews, except what they looked like and that I had occasionally seen them on my croft back home in Achiltibuie, near Ullapool. Through the aid of the RSPB staff here at Insh Marshes, I’ve learned loads about Curlews.”

Cat has also acquired wider knowledge on conservation and sustainability, as well as gaining many useful field skills.

“I’ve had the chance to carrying out surveying, identification of birds, plants and insects, soil sampling, habitat monitoring, data and mapping skills, egg biometrics measuring and nest finding, all while gaining a better understanding of the ecology around me in general,” she said.

Cat has found it very rewarding to see how far her abilities have developed during her placement, noting:

“It’s been quite a special journey to progress from barely being able to spot the camouflaged Curlews to being able to understand what their calls and behaviours mean and using that knowledge to enable me to see them fight over their territories, sit on nests, and now be rewarded with seeing the long-legged fluffballs that are their chicks.”

Cat has also benefited from the many other aspects of conservation going on at the nature reserve, from Beavers to Konik Ponies.

“It’s hard not to feel like you’re learning all the time,” she said. “Just seeing how the RSPB office runs on a day-to-day basis is a useful experience in itself, as understanding the amount of hours, effort and tasks that the staff carry out in their jobs provides a valuable insight into what may be expected of me, should I end up in a career like this.”

Volunteering is a well-established pathway into conservation jobs and Cat doesn’t have to look far for proof of how it can help with career development, with an example in the Insh Marshes team. Assistant Warden Adrian Samuels was previously a volunteer at the nature reserve, transitioning from a very different career in the film industry.

“We have a fantastic group of volunteers here on the reserve, from local people through to those travelling from further afield to support our work here,” Adrian said. “People volunteer for different reasons and it can bring a whole range of benefits, from learning skills to meeting people and the wellbeing that can come from being in nature.”

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.

“We’re extremely grateful to all our volunteers for the time they dedicate, because together we can achieve so much more impact for nature,” Adrian said.

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.