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Volunteering for Nature

Children or nonagenarians, volunteering really is for everyone. Chiara Ceci asks RSPB volunteers why they love what they do

THE LOVE of nature can cross many barriers, including a divide of more than 90 years between the youngest and the oldest RSPB volunteers.

Elizabeth Nelson is a 96-year-old nature lover who volunteers every Saturday in the visitor centre at RSPB Minsmere, Suffolk.

“I am responsible for organising the pin badges and do little odd jobs around the visitor centre, like folding and preparing leaflets,” says Elizabeth, known as ‘Betty’ to her colleagues.

“I used to visit Minsmere with my husband on holidays, probably 20 years ago or more. I love the Bewick’s swans.”

Elizabeth was born in Westcliffe, but grew up in Wembley Park, Middlesex. During the Second World War she worked for the fire service, then as a full-time mum to her daughter, who now lives in Sri Lanka.

Today Elizabeth lives in the pretty coastal town of Aldeburgh, and takes the bus to and from the nature reserve, just 20 minutes away.

“My parents weren’t interested in nature or wildlife, but I had a great love of animals and kept several canaries and budgies.”

Asked whether she has seen the countryside change over the decades, she replies: “Yes it has changed a lot. I didn’t notice how much until recently. I see fewer birds overall, especially in my garden.”

The thing she enjoys most about volunteering is “meeting people, and talking to them about all the wildlife they see, which helps me learn more”.

Ian Barthorpe, visitor experience officer at Minsmere, who has worked with Elizabeth for many years, says: “Betty is an inspiration to all of us, remaining so active and enthusiastic.

“She’s been an integral part of our volunteer team for many years now. Regular contact with nature is important for all of us, helping to keep us all fit, healthy and young at heart. Volunteering is also great for our health and wellbeing as it keeps the mind active and maintains contact with other like-minded people.”

The RSPB is an organisation founded by volunteers and, like all charities, could not do as much without them.

“At our heart we remain a volunteer organisation. Yes, we have 2000 staff. But we have 12,000 volunteers. We couldn’t do what we do for nature without our volunteers. The volunteers make us who we are.”

It’s estimated that the value of the RSPB volunteer work exceeds £7m a year. Volunteering enables the RSPB to save more nature and get more work done but, most importantly, it’s a route to engaging and informing people about what they do.

There are many ways people can get involved, from working outdoors on conservation projects to volunteering professional skills in a more office-based environment.

“Whatever people choose to do with us, we want to make it a fun and rewarding experience. The RSPB is competing against the other things that people might do with their spare time – whether that’s playing squash or visiting their family – and we always need to remember that.” Elizabeth and Jack are proof that volunteering is for everyone, and an ideal way to meet new friends and give something back to the community

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