Travelling around Yorkshire to some of its most picturesque places seeing some of the county’s plants and animals up close? Helen Leavey meets the volunteers of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust doing just that.
They say never work with children or animals. But the day I spent at Flamborough interviewing schoolchildren and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (YWT) volunteers, as two seals basked in the sun, was one of the best I’ve had in five years in God’s Own Country.
I was there with filmmaker Simon Collins and photographer Lawrence Davenhill and it was one of many trips we took to meet people who regularly give up their time for the trust. We met them at a working farm near Huddersfield, the lighthouse at Spurn Point and we travelled to a wetland nature reserve near Doncaster and a flower-filled peat bog in York next to a dual carriageway. We hung out with endangered puffins, cows, calves and wild ponies whilst snapping countless pictures, filming hours of footage and scribbling copious notes.
The idea was to showcase the many different people who work as trust volunteers, people like 17 year old Emma Hornshaw, from Tadcaster who, along with her parents, has been on a rota looking after ponies at York’s Askham Bog, from April to November, for four years.
“We check there’s nothing in their eyes, check if they are walking and eating, have no cuts or abrasions and that they interact,” she says. “If one is on their own we report it as they sometimes bully each other and become isolated. Sometimes they need treatment so we have the vet’s phone number.”
Emma wants to be a vet and has already been offered interviews to study veterinary medicine. Her mum Julie says the volunteering helped her with getting work experience placements.
The family cherish their many evenings with the ponies, and filmmaker Simon, who often takes his two young children to explore the big outdoors, said one of his favourite expeditions was meeting the Hornshaws.
“Seeing the ponies come out of the bushes as the light was fading, seeing the friendly and kind family we were with, felt almost magical.”
At Potteric Carr nature reserve – a royal hunting ground until the English Civil War – we spent several sweaty hours exploring in the company of Rob Leach and Alan Jenness, who are proof that volunteering is a good way to make friends. They met in a bird hide when they were paired up a couple of years ago. Now Rob, in his late 60s, and Alan, in his early 80s, walk together for miles each week on the 642-acre reserve.
They often spot deer while keeping an ear out for instructions on walkie talkies, chatting whilst checking for damage and overgrown pathways; once they helped a distressed sheep whose head was stuck in a fence. They give directions to the public and information about birds – a record 163 species were seen on the reserve in 2016.
“We have a first-class friendship,” Rob explains. “And we feel valued. For people no longer working, to feel valued again is well received.”
He said potential volunteers shouldn’t worry if they don’t know about birds or mammals. “You quickly come on board.”
Alan began volunteering after his wife died. “We liked sitting at the end of the garden by the river, having a glass of wine, watching the kingfishers. Now coming here is the best part of my week. I see more wildlife than I ever have before. Volunteering gives me camaraderie, banter, satisfaction, enjoyment, fresh air and exercise. I’m making a contribution to the environment, it occupies my mind. I feel rewarded.”
Emma Dawber, in her early 50s, feels that same sense of satisfaction at the Living Seas Centre at Flamborough. A GP for more than 20 years, she said she’s now involved in health in a different way.
“If people have a healthy attitude to Mother Nature and to life, are being active and it makes them feel good, that’s better than drugs! Seeing other people’s wonder is a piece of heaven, sprinkled with fairy dust.”
One of her favourite elements of volunteering is taking children rock pooling.
“It’s a limpet,” she told a few year three pupils whilst we listened in and filmed. They huddled around, peering intently at the sea snail on her hand. “When the sea comes over, the limpet goes for a walk for its dinner.”
The Marine Conservation Society said 718 pieces of litter were found for every 300ft of beach cleaned in September 2017, a 10 per cent increase on the previous year.
“We have seen the impact of balloon bits, with birds tangled in them,” she says. Polystyrene breaks up into tiny bits and disperses, resembling plankton, while cans and plastic last a very long time. Some children get a bit upset, she said, but mostly they enjoy the beach. “Some have never been before. It’s so exciting to see them enchanted by natural things in life. Coming here is a healthy activity, they are being educated in a positive, healthy way.”
Lawrence, the 25-year-old photographer in our media team, particularly enjoyed Flamborough.
Alex Green is another one who seems to have found his calling working with the environment. He studied politics and international relations but while friends found jobs in business or the police force, the 22-year-old landed a salaried role with the YWT as a project assistant. Previously he was a volunteer at the 240-acre Stirley Community Farm, not far from his home.
“I went along to see what it was like once a week, then three times a week, then every day,” he says. He drove tractors and quad bikes, helped out with cows and bulls, made hay and maintained fences and machinery. “Some of what you see is spectacular, like calves being born,” Alex told us before climbing into a pen holding some boisterous and vocal cows, adding: “I love it.”
The paid staff and volunteers are led by the Trust’s CEO, Rob Stoneman. He doesn’t pull his punches about his concern for Yorkshire.
“Who doesn’t feel their heart lift when they see a crab scuttling across a rock, a puffin soaring into the sky over a glistening sea, or a bee busily doing its duty so beautifully?” he said. “Such things lift us every day. But it’s not just the polar bear, many miles away, that’s endangered. There are big problems in Yorkshire too; the numbers are staggering and sobering. Over half of our wildlife has declined since 1970, with one in ten species threatened with extinction. Around 20,000 tonnes of litter are dumped in the North Sea every year. So it’s not just the likes of the polar bear, tiger and elephant – wonderful and important as they are – that need our help. Our own backyard needs a massive hand too.”
He says there is a lot more to do to keep what we’ve got and help nature recover.
“This requires a herculean partnership of conservation action, including as many volunteers as possible. It is inconceivable to think how YWT could function without volunteers.
“They are our back-bone, the beating heart of the passion that sustains us. But we need a lot more help in 2018. Will you stand up for the environment? Perhaps you could volunteer at a beach clean, make your garden wildlife friendly or join the YWT as a member or regular volunteer.
“Ultimately, every one of us has a role to play to protect Yorkshire’s countryside and wildlife, or one day there won’t be much left to protect. It’s that simple.”
But the last word should go to some of the children we met at Flamborough. Four of them, from Bridlington’s Quay Academy, jumped into the air, shouting: “We don’t want animals to go extinct, save wildlife!” I couldn’t put it any better myself.
YWT volunteering open days take place on January 14 at Potteric Carr, February 4 at Spurn Point, February 13 at Stirley Farm and February 17 at Flamborough’s Living Seas Centre. For more details go to ywt.org.uk