Simon Ritchie began volunteering at St Cyrus NNR when he was just 16 years old. He shares his experience of growing up on the reserve, and how it has shaped him as an individual.
Tell us about your volunteering experience at St Cyrus NNR?
I first started volunteering with my grandad at St Cyrus when I was in 5th year at High School, in 2012. He was a local from St Cyrus and was also interested in wildlife and the outdoors. I began by helping Therese Alampo, the Reserve Manager, with beach cleans and other jobs including reserve maintenance. I had always been interested in wildlife as a kid, but as I became older, the interest increased.
Right away I started to learn more about birds with Therese encouraging me to participate in bird counts on the reserve. This led to regular counts from the bird hide, and then as my knowledge and identification skills grew I got involved with more counts and surveys. I have now completed cliff nesting and shoreline bird surveys and mapped ground nesting bird territories.
I soon began to pay more attention to all the wildlife around me. I started helping Therese and the team with the botanical surveying on site. With an abundance of botanical species well as insects and mosses, St Cyrus was the perfect place to learn. There is a fantastically beautiful dune grassland, which is awash with species, the different colours are phenomenal. We undertook surveys of maiden pink, early purple orchid, Nottingham catchfly and northern marsh orchid in the summer months.
I also very much enjoyed the practical aspects of volunteering such as path building, signage and infrastructure repairs, beach cleans and habitat management. I helped run events, engaging with the public, completing visitor surveys and communicating with different recreational users. Helping to lead educational groups is something that I have found rewarding and all of these activities help to increase communication skills.
Even though I am busy studying for my degree I am still a regular volunteer at St Cyrus and learning new things, even six years later!
What skills have you have gained from volunteering at St Cyrus?
Over the years I have expanded my knowledge of wildlife identification (birds, plants, grasses, mammals etc.); communication skills (working with the public, helping with events); practical skills (working with tools/machinery, understanding the management of habitats) and life skills (time management, achieving goals). It has helped pave the way for my conservation career.
What do you consider the most enjoyable aspect of volunteering to be?
Due to my keen interest in wildlife and ecology, I must say I particularly enjoy the ornithological and botanical surveying. I equally enjoy seeing the daily results of the practical habitat management side of things, which in conservation is a rare thing – it can often take many years for wildlife conservation goals to visibly appear.
What is it like being a part of a group of volunteers on the reserve?
The team at St Cyrus NNR is amazing, close and enthusiastic. We all have different skills and experiences to draw upon. I owe a lot of my knowledge to Therese and Kim who were very helpful, patient and encouraging. Volunteers like Michael and Niall helped me to further my understanding of wildlife, and took me on as a young newbie to the reserve! I have made great friends with other volunteers and staff, developed many skills and great memories.
How have your career/life aspirations been influenced by the volunteering you’ve done?
As a result of the skills I gained at St Cyrus I was given a part-time job with Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) at Montrose Basin as a teacher/naturalist. This involved leading young educational groups and teaching them about nature and wildlife. This led to a position as the Seasonal Visitor Centre Assistant there. I was then employed by SNH on a Student Placement in 2015/2016 as an apprentice ranger. For 12 months I worked full time on NNRs around Aberdeenshire helping run the reserves with the rangers. I then worked for SWT through the Winter/Spring of 2017 as a Swan Management Project Assistant. None of this would have been achieved if it was not for experience, skills and contacts I gained during my time volunteering.
My interests have also flourished since 2012. I am now a very keen birder and naturalist and into my identification of different species. I have been a trainee bird ringer for a few years. I have also partaken in many different ecological surveys and spent time in amazing places in Scotland including recently volunteering on the Isle of May for two months working with seabirds and visitors.
Volunteering has definitely helped with my Studies too. I have moved from an NC course in Countryside management to degree level, and hope to complete my BSc in the coming year and maybe progress on to my honours year. Afterwards I would like to start working as a ranger on a nature reserve and, one day, manage my own reserve, that would be the dream!
Do you have any advice for anyone hoping to volunteer on an NNR?
Go for it, get stuck in! It is absolutely invaluable experience. Not only do you learn so many different things, but being out in nature is good for you both physically and mentally. Volunteering can be flexible and work around your schedule. Anytime is a good time to start.
Find out more about volunteering on an NNR here.