My traineeship with Durham Wildlife Trust and why you should do one too

My traineeship with Durham Wildlife Trust and why you should do one too

Mary-Anne Rielly gives a run-down of her time as a Volunteer Conservation Trainee with Durham Wildlife Trust.

When I take a look at my work calendar and see that my Wednesday will consist of a walk around a nature reserve with one of our wonderful Reserve Rangers, followed by a training session on harvest mice surveying, and finishing with a staff meeting where my colleagues will tell me of all the excellent work they have been doing with their varied and exciting projects, it is hard not to think I’ve really landed on my feet. What a contrast to just over 12 months ago, where I was living for the weekend in a job I had lost all passion for. You might not believe in fate, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that the advert for a traineeship at Durham Wildlife Trust appearing on my Facebook feed hours after I quit my first job was not meant to be.

I was offered the Volunteer Conservation Traineeship in December 2022, to begin at the start of January 2023. As I expect all career-changers may feel as they enter a new professional sector, I couldn’t help but be a little nervous. This would be my first experience of working outdoors every day, my first real experience working with tools, and most importantly my first insight into how real conservation work is carried out on real habitats in the UK. Whilst I had all this knowledge of conservation theory from my time studying biology at University, what good was it if I didn’t know how to put it into practise?

Wanting to show my new colleagues that they made a good decision in giving me this opportunity – I had to decide how I wanted to play this; should I be completely honest about my lack of experience and ask for help with tool use from the start? Or should I feign confidence and just get stuck in? I opted for the second route, but could hardly be surprised when my cover was quickly blown after being humbled by a bowsaw on my first task at Milkwellburn Woods. Who knew there was a correct technique for something so simple as sawing a branch in half? Seeing me struggle with this task, a couple of volunteers came over to give me some helpful tips and introduce themselves. I took this as a sign to not be embarrassed by my inexperience but instead embrace the fact this only meant I had more to learn; after all, what’s the point in a traineeship if you know everything already?

Person in protective gear using chainsaw to cut fallen tree in woodland

Mary-Anne putting her chainsaw training into practice

And so started the ten months in which I can confidently say I feel I learnt more than any other year of my traditional education. Each passing task introduced me to a new nature reserve comprising a new habitat on which to conduct new management techniques, and within only a couple of months I had accumulated a growing resume of different skills. By this point I was happy to pack the truck with tools I knew we would need for certain jobs, and increasingly familiar with the conservation needs of different habitats. As I became more confident with my practical work, I could now spend more time focusing on the ecology and history of our reserves. I am grateful to the volunteers who spent time showing me the identifying features of trees and plants, or who told me of the interesting industrial history of our sites, or who tried (often in vain, I must admit) to help me piece together the geography of the North East. It was these conversations that helped me put our work into a wider context, highlighting the connections present between cultural, historical and environmental aspects of our sites.

Of course, some task days were more appealing than others. If you were to watch the volunteer task force taking shelter under some trees during a torrential downpour as they tried to keep their sandwiches from the same sodden fate as their clothes, you may think ‘why on earth would these people voluntarily spend their time doing this?’. I admit there were times at the beginning of my traineeship when I asked myself the same question. It only takes a few tasks, however, to find an answer. I truly believe that when you are in good company with good conversation and a shared purpose, even the most seemingly mundane tasks, or wettest of weathers, can be made enjoyable. I would wake up every morning excitedly anticipating the chance to tell a volunteer a new joke I think they’d like, or give them a review of a book they’d recommended for me, or share my opinions on a new album by an artist we both listened to. Working alongside the volunteers is a large part of the traineeship, and in my opinion, one of the best aspects of the role.  

Woman next to pond with pipette and test tube from eDNA testing kit

Mary-Anne using eDNA to test for the presence of great crested newts

Unsurprisingly, another large part of the traineeship is the formal training programme; designed to provide you with a ‘starter kit’ of qualifications to boost your employability in the conservation sector. We started with Outdoor First Aid, which was good for two reasons; firstly, there’s no better way to break the ice between you and a new colleague when you have to pretend to give them the Heimlich manoeuvre, and secondly, because the training that followed immediately afterwards was chainsaw training. To my delight, chainsaw training went without a hitch, as did my 4x4, ATV, trailer-towing, brush cutter and pesticide training. I was happy to receive small credit card-sized licenses for these qualifications, which I take much pride in pulling out of my purse to show friends and family when at the pub. I was also grateful to receive an abundance of ecological training, and enjoyed my time spent learning how to identify wildflowers, conduct butterfly transects, identify common songbirds by their call, conduct habitat assessments, collect eDNA to test for the presence of great crested newts, ring birds for the BTO, complete Flower-Insect Timed counts, and identify common UK trees. Through these trainings I have not only been introduced to many wonderful individuals but many exciting new hobbies – which now I simply have to find the time to master, of course.

Three people sitting in a meadow in conversation with each other

Mary-Anne learning to identify wildflowers

As I neared the end of my traineeship and started to look for employment I had a lot of time to reflect on just how much I had learnt during my time with Durham Wildlife Trust, and how much I had developed as a professional and conservationist. I was confident that the skills I had gained and training I had completed would allow me to pursue a career I would feel was meaningful, and which would allow continuous learning about the natural world. I was (and still am) very grateful to the people that supported me throughout my traineeship, be it volunteers or my colleagues, and to the charities who provided funding for my role (ALA Green Charitable Trust and The Curtin PARP Fund). Recognising that the sense of community and shared motivation present within the Trust is something that can be hard to come by, I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity to join the Trust last October as a full-time member of staff. Reflecting on the contrast between my career prospects 12 months ago compared to now – it is crazy to see what difference a year makes. I am now looking forward to see where my career will take me in this exciting and expanding field.

Staff member Mary-Anne holding a kingfisher during bird ringing

Staff member Mary-Anne holding a kingfisher during bird ringing

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