When an idea or feeling creeps up on you, it is almost impossible to ignore.
This was what happened about six years ago, when I had been caning the David Attenborough BBC documentaries, watching one series after another – reminiscing with the gorgeous imagery of coral reefs, lush rainforests and mountains – and really missing wildlife conservation work. The itch of getting back into the field and learning new things intensified every minute.
My younger self started dabbling in nature conservation from 2005, when I was bitten by the travel bug. Leading up to that I was already working as a photographer and journalist, and offers to head out on assignments overseas were all too tantalising to reject. The real turning point was when I had to write and photograph a piece for an environmental magazine, where I was tasked to follow a company who ran ‘rainforest to reef’ field trips to a beautiful island in Malaysia, and document my experiences alongside a group of biology students. As a city girl I didn’t know what to expect, but when I put my snorkel-clad face into the crystal clear waters – completely disorientated but excited – I was utterly awestruck by what I saw.
I fell in love with the natural world.
The curiosity lit like a barn on fire. After that amazing field trip I wanted to learn more and champion those brave ideas for conservation. I enjoyed interacting with field experts who knew all about their birds, rainforests, trees, mangroves and reef fish. Nature was addictive.
From being a volunteer, I managed to snag a job with this company and form lifelong relationships with people who have inspired my life greatly in conservation. This defining moment felt right, and consumed by my passion for Nature I carried on with a career in the diving industry, teaching, managing dive resorts, visiting a myriad of places in the world, after which my partner and I decided to settle in the UK where he had family.
Life became a bit different, priorities changed and I didn’t particularly want to dive in ice cold waters. However opportunities surfaced again and we grabbed them, leading us to accomplish and then finish our diving careers on a high.
A sabbatical was in order and documentary-watching became a habit (cue introduction). Ideas started creeping in and I couldn’t shake it. I wanted so badly to work in conservation again, to do my part and stand up for Nature. An amazing opportunity in Membership and Visitor Services came up at the National Trust in West Exmoor and I went for it.
Working at the NT was an eye-opener. It was one thing to know about the wildlife in Southeast Asia (where I was from), but another to have to re-learn EVERYTHING from scratch. I understood the general concepts of how ecosystems work, but when it came to identifying temperate species I was clueless. Thus I buckled down and learned about every single bird, butterfly, bumblebee, wildflower, tree and habitat I could find, aware that because I didn’t grow up in this part of the world I had a lot of catching up to do. I volunteered for so many surveys and projects – here, there and everywhere while at the same time juggling work – and hit the wall so hard as it all became too overwhelming (read about what happened here).
Volunteering for everything was great but there is something uniquely special about carving a path out of something you’ve chosen. When I was on the cusp of deciding what to specialise in, the memory of a peaceful moment sat alone on top of a small hill surrounded by trees, on a remote island in West Papua, was one of the enlightening factors in my decision. I decided from then on that if I was volunteering, I would prefer to spend my time learning about trees. Moving on to a full-time volunteer ranger role with the same team I’d been working with was a natural progression. I have to thank a few (Dan C, Marcus and Jack) who had become close friends and mentors and been so helpful in my quest to build knowledge and expertise. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the NT volunteers too, we’ve had some good times!!
Although I’m no longer with the NT, I’m still learning and working with external mentors in the forestry and arboriculture industry. Since the latter part of 2019 I have also been volunteering in a friend’s private woodland, learning about woodland management and sustainable forestry. This also contributed greatly to my knowledge of trees and gaining professional tree work qualifications in the process (thanks Stuart!). In recent months with funding from local organisations, Stuart and I have also managed to start a fortnightly Hakeford Woods conservation volunteer group, which I currently manage and lead.
So far it has been fun for me to be on the other side of volunteering with a fantastic bunch of people, who absolutely love being outdoors and interacting with others despite the tough year we’ve had due to COVID-19. With their enthusiasm for learning new things and willingness to step out of their comfort zone, they constantly inspire me to do better too.
I really want to applaud these wonderful ‘helping hands’ and to anyone who has ever volunteered for nature conservation. If you’re ever keen to pursue this path (and can spare the time), volunteering is an excellent process to build up your confidence, skills and knowledge, and may eventually lead to a career for you.
Let’s keep doing our bit for Nature.