This International Day of Charity, one of our volunteers Phil, tells us all about how he got into volunteering for the RSPB…
Phil volunteers in the Tree Nursery at Haweswater. Image taken by Visitor Experience Manager Annabel
When I was a nine-year old boy, in the not-too-pretty town of West Hartlepool, some days I would rise before breakfast, jump on my bike and pedal up to the park to feed the ducks. One morning I noticed the sparrows hanging around to pick up the crumbs, so I threw a few morsels of bread behind me. When I turned to look back a few seconds later I was utterly transfixed. I had never seen anything so beautiful before. I did not know it then, but it was a male Chaffinch picking away at my offerings. Since that day I have been a bird watcher.
In my early teens I was accepted as a member of the Teesmouth Bird Club, and I suppose served some sort of apprenticeship there. I, and a few other teenage boys, enjoyed friendships and learning with adults who were not relatives or teachers. We learned fast. Then when on a family holiday in south Westmoreland, I took off by myself on my bike to a bit on the map that looked interesting to a bird watcher. Wandering down a causeway between reed beds I heard the strangest sound, which I knew was from a Bittern, though I had never seen or heard one before. A few minutes later I bumped into a grown-up birdwatcher, who confirmed my identification, and informed me that this place had recently been taken on by the RSPB as a nature reserve. I had “discovered” Leighton Moss, and made the acquaintance of John Wilson, the first, and long serving warden. At that time, 1965, the site was undeveloped for visitors.
This meeting changed my life. Within minutes he suggested I could volunteer to work on the reserve, so once my ‘O’ Levels were completed, I stuck out my thumb on the outskirts of my hometown, and quite a few hours later, in those pre-motorway days, was deposited on the A6 at a sign to Yealand Redmayne and walked the last few miles to the Moss. I looked after myself for a week in the on-site caravan, getting up at 4 am most mornings for bird watching before work, often heavy manual labour clearing reed, ditches and timber. I honestly cannot remember what I cooked and ate that week, but I saw Otters teaching their young to fish, Bittern, Barn Owl and lots more. On this, and subsequent visits I was taken round many of the best sites in the area, as far away as Walney and Foulney, by John Wilson, assisting with ringing and other interesting stuff. Such a wonderful part in my own development, I did not realise it at the time.
Phil doing some weeding among the oak seedlings in the Tree Nursery. Image taken by Visitor Experience Manager Annabel
I suppose I worked off and on at Leighton Moss over the next two years. But then I went away to college and was introduced to the very addictive activities of mountaineering and rock climbing. Birds were still there , but did not quite dominate as they had. But I kind of realised they would in later life. I did have the pleasure of using my mountaineering skills to assist an RSPB contractor in accessing Sea Eagle nests to ring the young, and one great day abseiled into a Golden Eagles’ nest to carry the chick up for a certain Roy Dennis to ring, and attach a satellite tracking device.
Now in more advanced years I am pleased that I can still rock climb, but birds, and the RSPB, are looming larger. I became aware of the RSPB’s activities at Haweswater while rock climbing on the lovely crags above Swindale. I read up the details of what was going on, re-joined the RSPB, and offered my services as a volunteer. The work is fun and varied, the company, whether staff or volunteers, are intelligent, friendly articulate folk, but as you would expect, any willing helper is welcome. I love especially the vigorous work demolishing fences and planting trees. Such a good feeling that. Health issues have intruded, so I often help in the wonderful Tree Nursery, with its thousands of babies, grown from locally collected seed. Yes, another volunteer duty. And my latest responsibility is meeting and greeting the folk who book the badger hide. Invariably good people, just a pleasure to set things up for them and leave them to it, knowing they are going to have some great entertainment from our most popular mammal. And I can retreat to the splendid local pub-the Mardale Inn and reflect on the pleasure of this voluntary work in such a lovely place.