Shaping a career

“As you volunteer, not only do you learn key skills but you learn about the site you are maintaining; it’s a true sense of custodianship.” Kirsten Brewster writes about her diverse experience of volunteering, and how it has shaped her career within the environmental sector. 

Mute Swan on Loch of Kinnordy RSPB reserve. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Mute Swan on Loch of Kinnordy RSPB reserve where Kirsten volunteered. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

What inspired you to pursue volunteering?

After completing my undergraduate degree in Zoology and Masters in Conservation and Sustainability, I quickly realised jobs within the environmental sector are incredibly competitive. I knew that the added experience of volunteering could help boost my CV, and provide a range of really useful skills and experience.

Gives us an overview of what volunteering you have done and what it involved

After I graduated, I took up a volunteering opportunity with the RSPB as a reserve volunteer at Kinnordy Loch (Kirriemuir), for one full day a week.  I also took on a similar practical reserve role at Tentsmuir NNR.

In November 2016, alongside my other volunteering, I took on a voluntary internship with the Scottish Wild Beaver Group (Perthshire), for one to two days a week. During this time I worked night shifts in a supermarket to allow myself the time to volunteer during the day.

My position with RSPB lasted approximately six months. The purpose of the role was to carry out the practical reserve management tasks including vegetation management, water level monitoring, wetland bird surveys, hide checks and footpath maintenance.

RSPB were my first choice because of the availability and frequency of their opportunities. I soon discovered other opportunities available within the organisation; one which appealed to me was community engagement. With no experience in this field, I realised the importance of communicating with the public about conservation work being done. I gained the confidence to speak to a range of audiences, and build the skills necessary in a variety of scenarios. It was also exciting to engage audiences’ interests and knowledge and explore contentious matters. I followed this interest to a voluntary role with the RSPB Celebrating Nature with Schools project as an educational assistant.

A day spent outdoors playing games and watching as young people become inspired by the natural world is hard to beat!

A day spent outdoors playing games and watching as young people become inspired by the natural world is hard to beat!

The internship role was extremely beneficial because I gained an invaluable knowledge of the entire charity and its operations. My responsibilities were varied, including managing the social media accounts – posting interesting and relevant content; planning public events and talks; organising the trustee meetings and AGM; taking minutes; developing funding applications and devising an educational programme for primary and secondary education.

The skills that I have gained are as varied as the role themselves; from practical outdoor skills such as squirrel surveys and fencing to dealing with invoices, membership queries and writing parliamentary questions. I have also developed my skills in writing and using online media by working on a wildlife blog with my partner – a project like this has allowed us to relay our interest in conservation to others and justify our weekends spent looking for various wildlife!

How has volunteering helped you to enter the environmental sector of work?

Volunteering has given me the opportunity to understand just how many different routes there are into an environmental career as well as trying my hand at a few. The benefit is that I am quite open-minded about future roles but I definitely think I value a role where there is the opportunity to get outside and appreciate nature with others.

My current role is a Graduate Placement with SNH working on the project Engaging farmers in biodiversity in the Rural Resources Unit. One of the aspects I enjoy about this role is visiting farms and talking about nature. Ultimately, achieving nature conservation more effectively requires report writing and advising policy so I am passionate about translating my experience into recommendations at a higher level. I feel that my volunteering experience was integral in giving me the confidence and knowledge for both the interview and to carry out the work that I have been doing over the last six months.

Kirsten visiting young farmers at Lynbreck Croft. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Kirsten visiting young farmers at Lynbreck Croft. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Reflecting on your volunteering experiences…

I was surprised to think back and realise that my favourite aspect of volunteering was the time that I got to spend outdoors particularly in the company of others. My voluntary role as an educational assistant encompassed both these aspects by enthusing primary school children about the natural world through the East Scotland Sea Eagle population. A day spent outdoors playing games and watching as young people become inspired by the natural world is hard to beat!

How has volunteering shaped your appreciation for nature?

When you volunteer in a place like a nature reserve you develop a sense of belonging. For example, if I visited Tentsmuir NNR only once I would enjoy my experience of that place. However, if I visited the NNR regularly I would develop an affection for the area and notice changes over the seasons.

Tentsmuir NNR. © Steven Sinclair/SNH

Tentsmuir NNR. ©Steven Sinclair/SNH

By actually looking after the place, you develop a deeper understanding and knowledge of it that surpasses appreciation. As a volunteer, not only do you learn key skills but you also learn about the site you are maintaining; it’s a true sense of custodianship.

If you like a place or want to know more you should volunteer there because carrying out practical work at a site builds a new relationship between people and place.

Finally, what advice would you give to anyone wishing to volunteer in the environment?

My advice for younger people interested in the environment and volunteering would be to just get out there! Don’t feel that you have to wait until you have more knowledge or skills to take part, volunteering is all about learning. There are so many people in this sector who are delighted to mentor volunteers in their field and if you don’t enjoy a particular aspect, try something else until you find what you are passionate about. is a great place to find opportunities, as is Facebook in my experience.

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