Volunteering with Tracking the Impact and Chiltern Rangers

Monday 25 May 2020

Have you ever wondered what it'd be like to volunteer for a conservation group or wondered why so many people are choosing to give up their valuable spare time and what benefits it can bring? We spoke to Colin Duncan, one of our Tracking the Impact volunteers to find out what he loves about volunteering outdoors, some of his favourite memories and why he would recommend it to anyone!

What made you decide to volunteer for Chalk, Cherries and Chairs?
I wanted to belong to a group that had the foresight to draw up and execute a plan that would help protect the natural beauty of the Chilterns.
I’ve lived in High Wycombe for over 40 years and much of my leisure time has been spent walking and bird watching in the green space and woodlands that the Chilterns has to offer. I know that these rural areas have to be actively managed or they soon revert to scrubland or monoculture which neither sustains a diverse natural habitat nor an attractive facility for people to enjoy. 
What did you do, volunteering-wise?
Over the last year, I’ve worked at 2 main sites – Chiltern Forest Golf Club and Handy Cross Farm – paying several visits to each site. At Chiltern Forest Golf Club, together with several other volunteers working under the watchful eye of a Chiltern Ranger, we cleared large areas of overgrown scrub on the edges of the fairways. This has helped restore the chalk downland allowing flowers such as orchids (pyramidal, bee and fly orchids) and cowslips to thrive; created a food source for butterflies and pollinators, and habitats for nesting and roosting birds.

At Handy Cross Farm and at Chiltern Forest Golf Club too, we planted literally hundreds of metres of new hedging. The goal here is to work in conjunction with and approval of participating farmers and landowners to restore and then maintain the many thousands of kilometres of hedgerows that have been lost over the years. 15 different species of hedging were planted, including blackthorn, hawthorn, spindle, maple, all natural species and all selected to provide flowers for pollinators, leaves for caterpillars and habitats for birds.

I’m also taking part in the Tracking the Impact project. This is a scheme that involves recording the birds, butterflies and flowers in specific areas over a 4 year period. As its name implies, the aim is to measure the effect that the Chalk Cherries and Chairs’ initiatives are having on the number and variety of these species.
What did you particularly enjoy most about volunteering?
The physical aspect – it’s great to be doing something active outside, in beautiful settings. There’s no pressure, everyone works at their own pace and to their own ability. The sense of achievement at the end of doing something worthwhile is highly satisfying. There’s the social aspect too. There’s such a diverse group of people who volunteer, all willing to share their skills and talk, you learn so much.
Did you feel supported by the staff and coordinators of the project?
Very much so – health and safety is always of prime concern and clear instructions are always first given about hazards and how to avoid them. The overall goals of the project are clearly explained. It’s not a case of working randomly, but of knowing how the work one is doing fits in with the objective. The staff and the project coordinators are highly skilled and always willing to share what they know; everything from the use and maintenance of equipment to identification of trees, flowers, insects and birds.


On site, at HandyCross Farm                         With some of the Chiltern Rangers team (and tea of course!)

What is the funniest thing that has happened when volunteering?
My individual ‘claim to fame’ was forgetting the keys to operate the wood chipper. The keys for the chipper’s ignition and its padlock are both on the same fob. Having unlocked the padlock, I forgot to pick up the keys, only to discover the omission an hour later, some 20 miles away on site at Chiltern Forest Golf Club. Oops! Thankfully, Leila, (like all the other Rangers) could see the funny side.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to try volunteering for the first time?
Just do it! If you are apprehensive about fitting in, everyone is made feel welcome immediately, given full help and guidance and, most importantly, told to enjoy yourself. If you are worried about not knowing what to do, there’s such a great group of people, all willing to share their skills, knowledge and enthusiasm. If you are concerned about the physical activity, you work at your own rate and rest when you decide.
Why should people get involved?
There’s all manner of reasons why people decide to volunteer. Some do it because they enjoy meeting people, others because they enjoy the physical work. Whatever the initial reason, there’s the fundamental belief that what you are doing is having a beneficial effect helping to protect the wildlife, restore habitats and maintain the beautiful natural resources and heritage of the Chilterns.
What is one thing you always bring to site, regardless of project?
The obvious answer to this question is ‘The Tea Kit’. There’d be mutiny on hand if it was ever forgotten as, besides refreshment, it gives the opportunity to chat and regroup.

Personally, what I always bring to site is a sense of excitement and a spirit of enjoyment. I love the projects with which the Rangers are involved. As the seasons change, so does the volunteering work – repairing and maintaining woodland steps and paths; creating woodland glades; clearing rivers and streams – so diverse, so many woodlands under management, so much to learn and enjoy.


Colin on site with other volunteers and Chiltern Rangers Community Ranger Leila

What are you most looking forward to doing when you can volunteer again?
Renewing friendships and getting back to work again. I’ve been volunteering with the Rangers for 2 years, regularly each Friday and frequently on other days during the week when there are special projects on. It is difficult to describe just how much I’m missing these volunteering sessions. The start of ‘Tracking the Impact’ project has been postponed until next Spring. As necessary as it has been, ‘Lockdown’ has severely impacted on these activities. My hope is that Covid-19 is brought under control and that things will soon be back to normal once more.
What is your favourite thing to see in the Chilterns?
It is the overall beauty of the Chilterns that I appreciate. Those of us who live in the area are so lucky. There’s so much of the Chilterns’ heritage that endures through its fields and its woods, all of which help to sustain the natural world and the beautiful landscape.

In the early 1980s, returning from a business trip in Kidderminster, I was amazed to see 2 Red Kites flying in the skies above the M40 at Stokenchurch. Some 40 years later, the Red Kite is probably the most common bird seen in our skies. If similar levels of reintroduction and management can be achieved through projects such as the Chalk, Cherries and Chairs initiative, there’s a great natural future ahead.
If you had to go to a deserted island, what two tools would you not be able to go without?
They’d have to be hand tools for obvious reasons. My choice would be a knife and magnifying lens. The knife could be used in a survival aspect, eg to collect food and fabricate shelter from vegetation. The magnifying lens could be used to provide fire and, to satisfy my curiosity, a means of close examination of the insect life that is fundamental to any well-balanced ecosystem.


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