Over the last couple of years, an exciting project called 'Wild About Nature' has been underway at Conwy nature reserve. Our volunteers have been finding new ways to engage with visitors and we have produced new materials that you can see around the nature reserve. It's all focused on enabling more of our visitors to connect with nature, and we are really grateful to Heritage Lottery Fund Wales for their help in making it happen. As the project finishes this weekend, here's a look back and what we've been up to - and just as importantly, the legacy that will continue.
Volunteers make it happen
The main element of the Wild About Nature project is the volunteers. We say it again and again, because it's true: the RSPB cannot exist without the time, skills and energy of our volunteers. We have recruited and trained 18 new volunteers, who provide wildlife information to visitors out on the reserve, showing them how amazing nature is, and running events for a variety of visitors, but particularly for families. Some of these volunteers had supported RSPB Cymru's work previously, but for others it was a whole new experience.
We asked a few of them to share their thoughts about their Wild About Nature volunteering:
"Would miss it if I stopped - that says it all"
"Volunteering made me feel more confident. The reserve is wonderful and I loved seeing it throughout the year"
"I'm amazed by the knowledge so many of the children already have. It's lovely when they see something new or learn some cool new fact"
"Excellent support from staff and other volunteers"
One volunteer, who uses a wheelchair, after a session helping children to plant wildflower seeds, told us that he wished he had done something like this years ago as it gave him a sense of purpose.
During the project, these volunteers have talked to thousands of visitors, shared their stories and knowledge, and probably pointed out thousands of organisms, from over-flying gulls to snails found in the bottom of a pond-dipping net. In raw numbers, they have provided 434 days of nature activities during the project, but more importantly they've brought their personalities to our work, and we thank them immensely for their time and their talent.
Giving nature a home
Another beneficiary of the project are the waterbirds that use the nature reserve. Three years ago, we reshaped some of the islands in the Deep Lagoon, making them more suitable for nesting and roosting, with a shallow profile rather than the eroded 'cliffs' that the old causeway had become. So, in autumn 2016, as part of Wild About Nature, we designed and installed a fence that sits in the water between the Carneddau Hide and the row of islands. This helps to ensure that night-time visitors such as foxes and badgers can't get onto the island, which might discourage birds to settle or cause nests to fail. We've seen much greater use of the islands by ducks, geese and waders since the fence was installed, especially the island that is closest to the hide. Several pairs of ducks and geese nested there this Spring and an oystercatcher, and many are using it as a post-breeding 'loafing' area this Summer.
An unexpected bonus is that the fence has proved a popular perch for some birds. Visitors have shown us photographs of swallows and sand martins resting on it having arrived here on migration, a kingfisher that used it as a diving board during the winter, and a pied wagtail feeding its hungry chicks while balancing on the wire!
Looks and sounds amazing
Having the Wild About Nature volunteers is the best way we can engage with visitors and connect them with the nature that lives here. They can answer questions, tailor their conversation to visitors and convey their own passion for the reserve. But volunteers can't always be here, so we installed a soundpost.
It features some of the wildlife that you'll find here in different seasons, and the recordings are changed to suit the time of year. Again, another volunteer came to our aid here, writing, translating and recording the audio files that you can hear when you press the button. For some visitors, panels of text are not an appropriate way to convey the magic of wildlife at Conwy, so the soundpoint uses a different sense to engage with nature. And it's solar-powered, so it's very green too!
We have also replaced the telescopes in the Coffee Shop, which are always a very popular way to get closer views of the birds on the Shallow Lagoon and the Carneddau mountains.
Big pictures, bright colours
A cornerstone of Conwy's purpose has always been to encourage families to discover nature. We have installed several simple graphics and interpretation that convey this message, that the reserve is open to all, that it's not just for specialists. On arrival, visitors are greeted by an eight-metre long graphic that illustrates some of the activities in which you can participate at Conwy. If you enter the Coffee Shop or nip to the loo, you'll find colourful images and fact boxes that we hope will encourage you to explore the reserve further. They feature some of the wildlife that might see on the reserve such as starlings, water rail, butterflies, otter, as well as the Carneddau mountain ponies that graze here.
Farther into the reserve, we've brightened up the outside of the Tal-y-fan Hide, encouraging more visitors to take a look through its windows and see both the wildlife and the stunning landscape views.
Volunteers had a hand in all this too, constructing the frame for the entrance graphic, installing the soundpost and all of the image boards, both inside and out. Our thanks for all their hard work too.
We were delighted when the Wild About Nature volunteers were shortlisted for an award in the High Sheriff of Clwyd Community Awards, and the three volunteers who attended the ceremony were proud to pick up the winners award for Conwy County in recognition of their enthusiasm for connecting people with the natural world. Helen, our Visitor Experience Manager who ran the project, said that she experienced a sense of real pride seeing the volunteers receive the award but also because it was so good to see the friendships that they had developed between a group of people ranging from teenagers to retired individuals.
It doesn't stop now
The graphics and interpretation have been installed over the last few months and have a lifetime of several years, so you'll see them next time you visit. We can, of course, keep changing the information on the soundpost, and the wildlife here provides an almost endless supply of great stories to tell.
Most importantly, 17 of the 18 volunteers who were recruited and trained are still with us, and will continue to help visitors explore and discover the nature that's here. The project may officially end today, but the friendships built, the confidence gained, the knowledge learned and the enthusiasm for people and nature will live on for a long while yet.
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