I feel I am putting something back into the environment. It brings me satisfaction and enjoyment, fresh air and exercise.Potteric Carr Volunteer
Volunteering is a great way to make new friends; the walking, talking and laughing proof of that is the obvious bond between Rob Leach and Alan Jenness. The pair chat and tease each other every Monday at the Potteric Carr nature reserve, just as they have since they began working together around three years ago.
A couple of pensioners strolling for miles in the Yorkshire countryside is a common enough sight. But Rob and Alan are not just enjoying the scenery and wildlife including birds -- 163 recorded species in 2016 -- deer and water voles. They are ‘pathfinders’, important members of the team protecting this YWT wetlands site, a royal hunting ground until the English civil war.
The reserve, near Doncaster, covers 642 acres so the men have two-way radios as they walk along the paths and waterways for hours, often braving intense heat, heavy rain and snow. They look for vandalism, overgrown areas and damaged bridges, buildings, hides and fences. Anything out of the ordinary is reported back to the trust’s estate managers.
There are sometimes dramas: Rob, in his late 60s and Alan, in his early 80s, once freed a sheep after its head got stuck in a fence. They also helped out a visitor whose wheelchair had partially slipped into a ditch. However, their routine is more likely to include helping with enquiries from the public; birds, directions, the cafe and toilets often crop up in questions.
The men’s time together at Potteric Carr is one of the highlights of the week. “We have grown to know each other very well, and have a first-class friendship,” says Rob, a grandfather of six whose career included being a sales manager for a multinational firm. He has always enjoyed meeting people and values his relationship with Alan “in and out of here”. The pair often meet up for fish and chips or birdwatching. “Being here has allowed us to broaden our base of friends and feel valued,” adds Rob. “For people no longer in jobs, to feel valued again is well received.”
Rob had been visiting the site for around 40 years “to destress” and became a volunteer when he retired. He grew up doing a lot of camping and has always loved the outdoors, praising his parents for introducing him to nature. He is worried about wildlife. “It is disappearing at a fast rate, especially in urban areas. Potteric Carr, between the motorway, industry and private housing, is a wonderful asset that needs protecting and managing. A lot of volunteers are needed.”
Alan, a former greengrocer and mortgage advisor who, like Rob, was first interested in nature as a boy, began volunteering at Potteric Carr after his wife died. He used to enjoy sitting with her at the end of their garden by the river, having a glass of wine and watching kingfishers. Being at the reserve helped him to cope with his bereavement. Alan, who has two grandchildren, says volunteering gives him “friendship and banter and I feel like I am making a contribution.” Plus, he now sees more wildlife than he ever did before. “One day we saw four roe deer going through the water from right to left,” he says. He also stumbled across a deer sleeping in the grass.
Alan, who likes gardening and painting too, has walked all over the UK and Europe. “Now I like to come here and I feel I am putting something back into the environment,” he says. “It brings me satisfaction and enjoyment, fresh air and exercise.” He says one of the best things about being a volunteer at Potteric Carr is his mind being occupied and he also feels he is contributing to society. “I have always worked hard, now I feel rewarded and valued for what I do even though there is no payment.” He points out that the trust is a charity and could not function without lots of volunteers. “If it had to pay someone to do all the work it would run out of money. Why not volunteer? It is the ideal way to run the reserve.”
The two friends are hopeful more people of all ages, particularly youngsters, will get involved in looking after nature. They emphasise that volunteers do not need to be expert and know all about animals, birds and insects. They just need to be willing.
Written by Helen Leavey, writer and journalist.