Volunteers play key role in conservation of our county

Volunteers supporting conservation across North Yorkshire are being heralded as key to ensuring plans to place the county at the forefront of the fight against climate change become a reality.

Community champions have made a huge contribution, keeping North Yorkshire cleaner, greener and more connected in ways that would otherwise not have been possible.

We are overseeing initiatives to ensure that we achieve our ambition of reaching carbon net zero by 2030, and the work of volunteers is vital to conduct grassroots schemes to conserve the county’s natural habitats.

Our executive has endorsed a bid for York and North Yorkshire to become the first carbon negative region in the country, meaning more carbon dioxide emissions would be removed from the atmosphere than are emitted.

North Yorkshire has five protected landscapes covering almost half of its countryside, with the Howardian Hills, Nidderdale and the Forest of Bowland Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors National Parks.

The council’s leader, Cllr Carl Les, said: “Volunteers play such an important role in society, but their work on conservation projects in North Yorkshire is invaluable.

“Like all councils across the country, we are facing significant financial pressures, and volunteers are such an important additional strand to support the work we do.”

Among initiatives being considered to help with habitat restoration and improving biodiversity is a local nature recovery strategy. The strategy for York and North Yorkshire, which is due to be in place in 2025, will identify priorities for nature’s recovery, map the most valuable existing areas and identify opportunities for creating and improving habitats. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has allocated £388,000 to prepare the strategy.

Work to tackle climate change has also been identified as an initial priority for millions of pounds made available from the Government.

We have £16.9 million from the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to award by March 31, 2025, to projects to improve communities and place, develop skills and support people and businesses. A further £5.4 million from the Rural England Prosperity Fund is available to boost the economic prospects of the county’s rural areas. The first programmes open for applications are the community climate action and business sustainability programmes.

A climate change strategy has been drawn up for North Yorkshire to develop work to reduce carbon emissions, while outlining how we will prepare for changes in climate.

Our work is aided by scores of volunteers who are playing a major role in helping to conserve the environment, including in the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which lies between Helmsley, Malton, Sheriff Hutton and Easingwold.

Howardian Hills AONB officer Francesca Pert said: “North Yorkshire’s volunteers are crucial for delivering the objectives in the Howardian Hills AONB’s management plan.

“Volunteering also provides opportunities to get out in the fresh air with like-minded people, tackles loneliness and makes a tangible difference to biodiversity.

“Our volunteers help us to protect some of the area’s rarest habitats, from maintaining wildflower meadows to removing invasive non-native species and preventing scrub from encroaching on to Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation. We are extremely grateful for the work they do.”

We are celebrating volunteers by sharing their stories in its Team North Yorkshire campaign. Find more information about volunteering

Find out more about the UK Shared Prosperity Fund’s programmes.

‘I am very interested in anything to do with conservation and wildlife’

Our coast is rich in marine life, which is a big draw for residents and visitors from further afield. But our beaches are home to amazing marine life, particularly seals, and if we are inconsiderate our presence can be damaging.

Audrey McGhie, 61, a nurse at Scarborough Hospital, is one of a group of volunteers in Yorkshire Seal Group working to teach visitors to love and respect the seals that live along North Yorkshire’s coastline.

“I am very interested in anything to do with conservation and wildlife,” said Audrey. “I worked in the Falklands as a travelling teacher for a long time and saw the wildlife there, including a number of different species of seal. I also saw the effect people are having on the marine environment.

“If I can get more people interested and aware of the environment and the impact we have on marine life, I am helping in some small way.”

Audrey and members of the 30-strong volunteer group visit seal sites on the North and East Yorkshire coasts to talk to the public. They provide telescopes and binoculars, so people can watch seals unobtrusively.

While the seal population in the UK is relatively stable, globally there is an issue, so any threat here could lead to a worldwide decline.

“We explain what the seals are doing, what stage of their life they are at, engage with people and give them the opportunity to see the seals without having to get too close,” said Audrey. “The more that people see the seals and like them and can understand the effects that we are having on them, the more we can protect the seals.

“We get families coming along and we can connect a scope to a mobile phone so they can see the seals on the screen. It makes it more immediate and the kids go away amazed. That is really rewarding.”

Find out more about Yorkshire Seal Group.

‘I felt it was a great opportunity to give back to the picturesque area’

Swapping the bright lights of the capital for a rural idyll is a decision not to be taken lightly. However, for Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) volunteer Clare Messer, above, it was the perfect fresh start.

Clare moved to North Yorkshire in March 2021, having spent 30 years as a police officer in London. She adapted easily to the countryside lifestyle and when in April last year an opportunity arose to support nature conservation in the Howardian Hills AONB, she decided to put her outdoor skills to good use.

She said: “A friend of mine was volunteering and I was so excited about it. I felt it was a great opportunity to give back to the picturesque area.”

She receives tasks from our co-ordinator via email, with details of the issue and the location. She then visits and carries out the task.

“Some jobs are just to look, measure and photograph and report back, for example a stile that’s broken, while others I can tackle with my secateurs, like hedges encroaching on a sign,” she said.

Since starting, she has had a few tasks a month and can take a few weeks to report on them, so there is no pressure.

She said: “There are two main positives for me. The first is that I get out and about in the local countryside and it has helped me explore the area, the second is that I can fit in these tasks into my week when it suits me.

“I feel very privileged to live here and ride my electric bike through the Wolds and the surrounding villages.

“I would recommend people to sign up and help. You can work alone (as I do) or join in with the AONB group tasks that are sent out to all volunteers every month.”

‘My love of conservation has grown so much since doing this work’

Breaking free from her office desk to work in the outdoors has brought new skills and knowledge to Barbara Neill.

When the Harrogate-based PA’s son started school, she decided to take on new challenges while helping others. She signed up as a volunteer with charity Open Country, which helps people with disabilities access and enjoy the countryside. In her first year she has not only learned how to plant trees, put up fences, use machinery and lay paths but has made new friends and found a new love for gardening and conservation.

“Volunteering has overlapped into my home life, too – I use many of my new-found skills in my own garden,” she said.

“I had a basic knowledge of gardening when I started, but now I know what plants are best to encourage biodiversity, attracting bees and butterflies as well as giving shelter to other animals.

“Working with Open Country is great fun – we are able to give people with disabilities a real sense of purpose while also protecting all our futures.

“My love of conservation has grown so much since doing this work and I have been lucky enough to work in some amazing places.”

Barbara spends every Friday with the Nature Force group carrying out conservation work. In the last week that has involved completing the ‘yellow brick road’, a path through Rossett Nature Reserve in Harrogate with Friends of Rossett Nature Reserve Group.

“I would recommend volunteering to anyone – don’t put barriers up, you can give as little or as much time as you like. But I can guarantee you will find it rewarding.”

Barbara is one of more than 130 Open Country volunteers who give thousands of hours of their time in both Harrogate and Wakefield every year. To get involved, call 01423 507227.

‘There are lots of benefits – it is a win, win, win’

Helping to keep Barlow Common Nature Reserve near Selby tidy and accessible so that visitors can easily enjoy the flourishing wildlife is a win all the way for Keith Lister, above.

When Keith, 64, from Brayton, retired in 2020 after a varied career – most recently as a delivery driver across Europe – he wanted to give something back to his community.

As a teenager in the 1970s, he helped his mother do conservation work with the RSPB, so offering his services to Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, which manages Barlow Common, seemed a good option.

He is now a volunteer warden for the 90-acre reserve, which was created on a former rubbish tip and is now a rich wildlife site, with lakes, grasslands and meadows providing a habitat for a diverse array of wildlife.

“First of all, it is giving something back to the community,” he said. “On top of that, it is nice being out in the countryside doing physical labour, some of it quite hard. Also, you meet new people and socialise.

“There are a lot of benefits – you’re benefiting wildlife, you’re benefiting the community and you’re benefiting yourself, so it is a win, win, win.”

At least once a week, Keith carries out a litter-pick at the reserve.

“It keeps it tidy and means that there are eyes on the reserve,” he said. “For example, we had a tree fall last winter across a path, so I could inspect that and report it to the reserve manager.”

Fortnightly, he joins a group of volunteers from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to undertake tasks all year round, from coppicing to cutting verges back, cutting and raking the three wildlife meadows and ousting invasive Himalayan balsam.

“We don’t want it to look like a garden,” he said, “but you do have to manage it so that people can enjoy the walks and wildlife.”

‘It is important to keep dry stone walling skills alive’

With 24 years behind him as a volunteer with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Richard Laidler is developing a volunteering career to rival his 30 years in the police and military service before that.

And skills learned as a volunteer have put Richard, 76, in a select group – as one of only a handful of master dry stone wallers in Yorkshire.

He began to learn the ancient skill through National Park rangers, then a friend introduced him to the Yorkshire Dry Stone Walling Guild. His studies have seen him rise to master waller and he is now teaching others.

“It is something to be proud of,” he said. “It is important to keep the skill alive for conservation. We tell students about the history of the walls, the types of stone and the wildlife for which the walls can provide a habitat – such as birds, mice, adders.”

At the moment, he is rebuilding a wall at a playing field at Hawes.

Richard coordinates the northern team of about 40 volunteers for the National Park. He makes the drive to Reeth each week from his home in Washington, Tyne and Wear. His long association with the park began after he saw a notice appealing for volunteers during a visit to Aysgarth Falls.

“I could never work in an office,” he said. “I like to be outside in the fresh air. And this is giving something back.”

Members of his team, which works mainly in Swaledale, can turn their hands to many tasks, from coppicing and tree planting to repairing and resurfacing paths, building and installing gates (the team has its own workshop where it builds gates) to building bridges.

A total of 320 National Park volunteers provided 7,000 days last year.

“Without the volunteers, National Park Authority staff would be hard pushed to do this work.”