The big, green reciprocating mower had been cleaned, greased and oiled. I had lovingly polished it until it shone in the sunlight…
Armed with two new razor-sharp blades it looked magnificent. To those who know “her”, she is fondly referred to simply as Grillo. The marsh-man’s friend and the most important tool in my arsenal. We’ve gone through some tough times together over the past 18 months and I have had to have words with her on a handful of occasions. And on that sunny Saturday morning, with Wheatfen’s volunteer opening day about to begin, I trembled at the prospect of those who might handle her. She may look tough and robust, but there is a delicate element to her that only one who has shattered her blades and blown her bearings can appreciate. I silently prayed that she would survive the day.
I learnt a long time ago that the key to the success of any nature reserve is its volunteers. This is especially true for Wheatfen, where as a lone Warden even just the general day to day tasks can seem daunting, let alone the over ambitious management plan I drew up 3 years ago (alongside a personality that compels one to keep going until either you drop or the work is complete). When I applied for the Wheatfen Warden position, there were various questions raised about lone working and coping with the work load. I thought to myself then, “I don’t plan on working alone, I plan on building an army…”
I think most humans have a lazy side to them. Surely, if we all had the option not to work whilst still having plenty of money, we would grab the chance? I guess when your passion is your job, and you work not for your own gain, but to make a small difference to a tiny corner of the British countryside, it is different. It may be a quiet corner but Wheatfen is a gem, a place of magic, as many have come to realise. Even so, the desire for a few less fraught days is always there, and so the answer is to surround yourself with reliable volunteers. For they will need something to do, many will want to work hard and get things done, and again my damn personality will insist I lead from the front and set the example. Throughout the year, I only get a pinprick of the work done personally, with the volunteers doing so much more. They are the life blood of the reserve, the reason why we have species like swallowtails, which might otherwise be lost in uncoordinated fen mowing.
The backbone to any army is the group I will refer to as the “old timers”. Not old in terms of age, I hasten to add, but in loyalty, experience and knowledge of the site. Back in February we celebrated the 30th year of volunteering at Wheatfen for Gill and Simon Walpole; what a phenomenal achievement. Alongside several other regulars reaching similar anniversaries soon for 20, 25 or 30 years, the reserve does not lack its core strength, its very heart beat that drives it on to greater successes each year. Long may they keep volunteering, to steady the ship and keep it heading straight and true. With a series of recent volunteer open days, the volunteer ranks have swelled, with students from the UEA and Easton College joining the team, alongside locals of all ages and backgrounds. Thankfully old Grillo did survive the most recent one.
Perhaps more importantly, volunteers provide companionship, laughter, ideas and advice. Many are experts in their own right within various fields of natural history. Although at times I come close to pulling my hair out, as in one ear I get a lecture on the need for more open fen whilst in the other an opposing lecture on the need to scrub up more areas, this is all in good heart. Such discussions can only ever end in a phrase borrowed from the previous Warden, David Knobbs, “ I will consider it.” A few weeks ago, during one of the reserves more severe winter floods, I hastily telephoned round a group of volunteers to cancel the day’s session. An hour later they had all turned up anyway with their wellies and waders, and we battled on. All of Wheatfen’s volunteers deserve a medal for their commitment and hard work, but all I can offer them is my sincerest thanks.
And now in the light of the COVID-19 virus, we ask for our loyal volunteers to stand down. I will get my quiet days and I will miss the help of the many who give so much time to the reserve. Government advice asks for social activities to be disbanded, and large volunteer groups must be temporarily stopped. Nature cares not for such viruses, it just carries on. Chiffchaffs pour into the country, arriving at the reserve en-masse, their repetitive calling of their own name a welcoming sound. A million shades of green erupt from the peat, with the dyke edges lined with the butter yellow flowers of marsh marigolds. The reserve is bursting with life; the legacy of the volunteers.