It’s March at RSPB Mersehead. The snowdrops and daffodils are out in full force, Song Thrush practice before the mating season, and Lapwing start their aerial displays. In other words, spring is almost upon us! Just like the Barnacle Geese who will start heading back to the Svalbard in April, winter residential volunteers are preparing their outbound migration, before the summer residential volunteers arrive.

It has been a fantastic experience to work and live on this reserve for 6 months. I will soon leave Mersehead with bags of practical conservation know-how, wildlife knowledge, and generally having had a great time. To share this experience with you, and hopefully inspire you to get involved, here is what “a few days in the life of a RSPB Mersehead residential volunteer” looks like!


Monday 21/01/19

8:29am, time to head to work. The commute to the office from “The Roost” (volunteer accommodation) takes about 30 seconds, so there are no excuses for being late! We start the week with a team meeting to bring everyone up to date with what we have been doing, and prepare the week ahead. I sneak off just before the end of the meeting to open up the visitor centre for Joyce, the volunteer who helps us every Monday welcoming visitors. 
After a quick tea break at 10am, I collect the trail cameras that we use to monitor predator activity inside our electric fence. I go through the different clips, of hares, pheasants, and deer. All clear, no badger this time. I can place the cameras back, and do a check around the edge of the fence, making sure that badgers haven’t been trying to break in.

Caught off guard

12:30- Time to dash up to the volunteer accommodation for lunch. It is special to be live at the heart of the reserve, and I will certainly miss the peacefulness of sleeping at “the Roost”.

That afternoon, we head out to the back of the main wetland to measure the length of the sluice boards holding back the water. We want to cut some more, smaller sluice boards, to adjust the water levels with greater precision. As you can see at the top right corner of this picture, Jack, one of the other residential volunteer was a good project manager while Katy and I were plunging our hands in freezing water!
By the time the new sluice boards are cut to size and fitted it’s 4pm, usually the time we put tools down and have the remaining of the evening to relax.


Hard at work or Hardly working? Photo credit: L.Blakely

Tuesday 22/01/19

 “Tuesday Vols”! Every Tuesday morning, a group of motivated volunteers come to give us a hand. With these extra pairs of hands, we usually try to tackle bigger jobs. Today we are taking down an old decaying fence by the wet woodland at Preston Merse, the new bit land that was acquired by RSPB Mersehead in 2016. Expect Dave to say: “thought you’d never ask” when you finally mention going for a tea break!


Proud of our "Tuesday vols"! Photo credit: Eric Nelson

Having successfully completed the job, we have lunch altogether. I’m on visitor centre duty this afternoon, so I put my “RSPB” fleece and name tag on and head to the “VC”. Initially I was only moderately interested in the visitor engagement aspect of nature reserve work, but I have enjoyed this part of the job. It is nice chatting to visitors who are eager to know what exciting species have been spotted recently. Beware thought, don’t get caught off guard by “twitchers”: Make sure you always know where the current hotspot for Brambling is on the reserve! Trying to recruit new members is also a fun challenge, and I’ve often found myself gazing out the window at the end of my shift You get nice sunsets from the visitor centre viewing room…


Scottish sunsets.  Photo credit: Mathieu Burtschell

Wednesday 23/1/19

After working on my interpretation poster about red kites, I head out with the Mersehead team at 10am for a coordinated Barnacle Goose count. Precision is key for this count because surveyors all around the Solway follow a transect route at the same time to get an estimate of the total Svalbard Barnacle Goose population. 4036 geese on the reserve today, not bad, but not quite 8753, the peak count during my time at Mersehead. Bird counts is where I have progressed the most. When I first arrived, I could just about tell apart a robin from a blue tit. The list of bird I can ID around Mersehead is now getting close to 100. This steep learning curve is mostly down to being surrounded by knowledgeable people. If you are curious and want to learn, everyone at the RSPB will be keen to share what they know with you.


Learning my ducks.  Photo credit: Mathieu Burtschell

That afternoon I get my hands dirty with general reserve maintenance. I First take care of vehicle checks. Tire pressure: check; oil level: check; coolant level: check…  everything is in working order, I can pressure wash the truck to remove the accumulated mud. Once this is completed I head down to Meida hide to give it a good clean so that visitors have a pleasant experience watching ducks and wader.


Playing mechanics.  Photo credit: Mathieu Burtschell

There are plenty of other jobs I could have mentioned (doing guided walks, learning to strim,installing eel passes …), and this is the aspect of being a residential volunteer at Mersehead that I have most enjoyed. I got stuck into a wide range of nature reserve work, and I had responsibilities and objectives like any other member of staff. I am grateful for the opportunity I was given, and hopeful that this experience will open doors to many more within the environmental conservation sector!


Barnacle Geese- Photo credit: David Andrews (RSPB images)

Mathieu Burtschell

Residential Volunteer Trainee Warden at RSPB Mersehead