The billows of steam rising from the paper mill across the estuary blend easily into the smudgy sky, becoming loose clouds that drift almost imperceptibly across the chalky backdrop of this November morning. The day is muggy, but not oppressive; to the southwest the sky seems higher, and brighter; the clouds are punctuated by little hillocks of sunlight. The rippling water in front of me is disturbed by a gentle , but business-like breeze, and as I watch the up-ended teal dabble in the nearest pool, it begins to rain. The duck in front of me, unsurprisingly, seems undisturbed by the intensifying drizzle and continues with his work, peddling furiously to hoist his smart yellow hindquarters into the air like a cheerful flag. Most of the other birds have tucked their heads to their bodies and settled in for the worsening weather. I am grateful for the shelter of the visitor centre, but not for the first time feel slightly ashamed of the double-glazing between myself and the wildlife, boldly peering through the keyhole into their life within- though, of course- we are inside, peering out. The natural palette of the scene, coupled with this realisation, brings to mind the feathery lines of Degas- with birds instead of ballerinas... alright, enough exposition- into my first week at Burton Mere!  
 The view from the living room on my first morning
 
Previous to this placement, I have done two other stints of residential volunteering with the RSPB, a month at Haweswater reserve in Cumbria and another month at Loch of Strathbeg on the south-east coast of Scotland. I have loved wildlife as long as I can recall, but it wasn't until a few years ago that I ever considered it seriously as a career. Upon realising that the university experience wasn't made for me, I was searching for a way I could feel fulfilled; mentally, emotionally and physically- and practical conservation reared its leafy head! I was quick to discover, however, that enthusiasm only goes so far; my practical skills and identification knowledge were sorely lacking- nobody was going to hire me on the merit of my muddy boots alone! Opportunity came knocking in the shape of the residential volunteering placement at Haweswater, booked under my brother's name, who is part-way through a degree in animal behaviour. Having not heard back from the RSPB, he was surprised to get a phone-call asking what day he would be arriving the following week! A lengthy mix-up then ensued; it transpired that the information pack had been lost in the mail, and having assumed they had no vacancies, my brother had made alternative volunteering arrangements for that month. Seeing the opening, I quickly emailed the warden at Haweswater and offered myself up as tribute! A few days later I was on the train to the Cumbrian hills with a hastily-packed rucksack and no idea what to expect. The following month, I returned home with calloused hands and chilly extremities- but a keen desire to do more. My next placement in early summer at Strathbeg- brimming with new life and stunning sunsets- wooed me well, and I soon set about trying to secure a longer residential volunteering placement that would afford me the chance to become truly familiar with a reserve. 
 
Burton Mere has come at an interesting point in my life.
 
My interview took place in the middle of two exhausting and stressful weeks in Westminster, protesting against astonishing government inaction on our climate crisis. Sitting in a booth at my sister's office, chatting merrily to Liz and Dan over Skype about Burton Mere and trying to cheerfully answer their questions about the protest, life felt very surreal. As a climate activist, grief, dejection and panic come in waves; that night, as I shivered on the indifferent streets of London, I feverishly wished that I would be unsuccessful, suffering a predictable crisis of faith in the use of doing anything but direct action. Investing in your personal future is difficult, when the nature of that future (in more ways than one) is so uncertain.
 A snapshot of the actions in London
 
A few days later, Liz got in touch to let me know they wanted me to start on the 4th of November. My feelings were still mixed, especially because it meant I would miss the debriefing period after the protest, but I was determined not to self-sabotage, and reminded myself that the placement would be valuable to my mental health, skill set, and hopefully to the natural world itself. I was excited to be moving north, where I have a good network of friends, and set myself to finding out as much about my new home as possible. On Friday, I arrived (at the wrong station!) and Liz drove me to the reserve in the dark as a sudden downpour welcomed me to the reserve.
 
My first few days at Burton Mere have been spent decorating my room, exploring the grounds, and, crucially, baking cookies to ingratiate myself to my new overlords. On Saturday, Dan inducted me to life in the visitor centre- upon entering I was greeted by a sweeping wetlands panorama against a dramatic industrial backdrop; what remains of the once-sprawling steelworks, chimneys and the billows of modern life rising in stark juxtaposition against the muted tones of the reserve in front. That afternoon, I walked the few miles to Neston to get the lay of the land. I was pleasantly surprised by the picturesque villages I passed through on my hike, all stone and timber, and looked across the way to see the glittering skeleton of the urban landscape on the far side of the Dee. I loitered too long in town, stocking up on chocolate and hummus for the week (only the essentials, of course) and using the Costa WiFi to download a larder of Netflix to work through at the WiFi-free volunteer accommodation! Fairly marching back in the gloom, I eventually made it back to the house- to the relief of Dan, who thought I might have gotten lost on the reserve in the dark. Liz assures me that between the two of them, they are yet to kill a 'resi-vol', though she did suitably terrify me with her health and safety warnings during my induction on Monday morning. Note to self- never go near the power-washer if you value your life.
 
 Heading up to the Hillfort look-out point
I am now properly settled in and beginning to get excited about the months ahead. Already exhausted from mucking out a ditch yesterday, tomorrow I'm off to the point of Ayr to help clear ponds for Natterjack toads. This weekend I'm going to Manchester to debrief with some fellow activists (better late than never!) and am spending my evenings idly perusing the RSPB Handbook of British Birds. I find the entries attempting to details habits and voice especially amusing; personal favourites include: 'At the nest it has a variety of weird calls, including crowing, cooing, howls and screams', and the savage, yet to-the-point, 'probably also feeds on whale faeces'. With a little imagination, who needs WiFi?
 
The day is winding down now, and I am about to sit in on my first team meeting (which happen monthly). The rain has abated and the lavender sky is tinged with pink as the evening prepares to fall. If we finish in time, I will head back to the visitor centre to try and catch my first real starling murmuration, and most importantly, get to baking some more cookies for the toad work-party tomorrow.
 
 Sunset from the grain-store
Until next time,
Jess
Anonymous
  • Welcome Jess! I love your poetic first blog so look forward to reading further instalments- assuming you get enough time to write them! I am sure I will catch up with you soon when I am volunteering in Reception.