To celebrate National Volunteers’ Week, RSPB England's Oriole Wagstaff looks at how volunteering is building confidence and saving some of our rarest wildlife at RSPB Dungeness (and why marsh mallow are key to this!)

When you think about marsh mallows and volunteers, you might imagine toasting sweets on a bonfire. But, in this case, it’s all about a rare moth and the two volunteers who are striving to save it.

 Marsh mallow flower head and seed, ready for planting!

Introducing Jackie and James

Jackie and James Powell began volunteering at RSPB Dungeness over a year and a half ago. James has autism and hoped that volunteering with the RSPB, together with mum Jackie, might provide a taste of work experience. Jackie recalls how “initially, James found it quite hard. But the group at RSPB Dungeness encouraged us to get involved more and more, and it wasn’t long before we were really enjoying it. Now, James loves being part of a team.”

Their volunteering experience has involved a range of activities from making insect homes to delivering habitat management schemes that support wildlife. But, perhaps their most notable role, at RSPB Dungeness, has been their work with marsh mallows.

Marsh mallow madness

The marsh mallow plant (yes, it’s a real thing), although it doesn’t grow pink squishy sweets, is an important food source for the aptly named marsh mallow moth. In fact, it’s the only food eaten by marsh mallow moth larvae (their babies). But sadly, this moth is in danger of extinction. It’s recognised as one of the most threatened animals under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and is in need of conservation action. It’s found in only a few locations in Britain and Romney Marsh, the site of RSPB Dungeness, is one of these.

One of the main ways to support this moth is to plant more of the food source - marsh mallow. Over the past decade the team at RSPB Dungeness have been doing just that. Last year Jackie and James got involved and collected seeds from the marsh mallow plants on the reserve.

 When the government’s lockdown began, and Jackie and James could no longer volunteer on site, they didn’t let that stop them from helping the team. They began growing the marsh mallow seeds they had collected - but in their garden. Two months on and they have already grown nearly 200 plants.

 Jackie Powell holding marsh mallow plants grown in her garden to be planted at RSPB Dungeness

“Last year we helped out planting around 50 new marsh mallow plants. This year, we expect to grow between 350-400. We want to help these moths, so they don’t become extinct. We really miss the reserve and wildlife, but we feel like we are doing our bit for nature, and the reserve, from home where it is safe.”

Over the past 2 years, the number of marsh mallows at RSPB Dungeness has been increasing. This is all down to the efforts of volunteers such as Jackie and James who have grown and planted these marsh mallow plants. As a result, their hard work is providing the rare marsh mallow moth with the food it needs to survive and will help ensure its future in the UK.

Building confidence through volunteering

Volunteering with the RSPB has not only given James an extensive knowledge of wildlife, and the opportunity to help save a species, but he’s also developed a newfound confidence.

“We’re both feeling more confident, but James’s confidence has really soared over the last year and a half. He’s ready to try new things and has gained a new independence, taking on small projects, and able to work apart from me in a separate team.

It can be hard work through the winter - but we don’t mind a good day’s work - it’s great to be outside and it does your mental health the world of good. When you work in a team of volunteers who are all there for the same reason it’s empowering.” explains Jackie.

 James Powell planting marsh mallow seeds at home during lockdown

 For James, two things stand as what he enjoys most as a volunteer. “Working as a team and seeing the wildlife”, he states.  When asked if he enjoys volunteering it’s a resounding “Yes”. Volunteering has grown his interest in nature conservation and it’s easy to see a future for him working in conservation.

Invaluable volunteers

For Craig Edwards, a Warden at RSPB Dungeness, the role of volunteers is vital - “We currently have around 70 volunteers who all give up their time to help us out in a range of roles, from shop volunteers and guided walk leaders, to reserve team volunteers, like James and Jackie. Every volunteer is important to the team and it’s a great privilege to work with people so passionate about nature, the RSPB and Dungeness. It might sound a bit like a cliché, but we just couldn’t deliver the wonderful wildlife experience that is RSPB Dungeness without them.”

Pic of it