Volunteering in a time of COVID
In this article Bernard Love describes his experience as a volunteer at Glen Finglas in the heart of the Scottish Trossachs.
How did my Woodland Trust volunteering experience begin?
I began my role as a Woodland Engagement Volunteer in January 2020. I was to be based in the Glen Finglas Gateway Visitor Centre. Here I was looking forward to welcoming visitors to the site at peak visiting times, distributing leaflets and information and providing a Woodland Trust presence for visitors. The role would also give me the chance to be involved in other events and activities at the site.
By early March 2020, my training was complete, my Woodland Trust fleece and polo shirt were ordered, and I was raring to go! But, by late March, COVID-19 had taken hold. All volunteering activity was first curtailed and then completely suspended. This was a frustrating and potentially disheartening time as I felt that all the new knowledge and skills that I had learned were gradually evaporating. However, the steady flow of information from the Woodland Trust was effective in keeping spirits up. Gwen Raes, our estate ranger, played a key role in keeping her team engaged through regular contact, updates and training. I was at last able to get started at the visitor centre in April 2021. As a volunteering ‘newbie’ my first on-site experience was to shadow more experienced volunteers. This proved to be a great way of familiarising myself with the day-to-day aspects of my role. It was useful to see the varying approaches used by different volunteers. It was also a very good way of getting to know my new team mates better.
So what does a day’s volunteering at Glen Finglas look like for me now?
The Gateway Visitor Centre remains open but its interactive resources are not yet restored. As a result, I am encouraged to spend time on the estate’s 59 kilometres of paths and to meet up with visitors there. I also undertake routine tasks such as replenishing leaflet displays around the visitor centre, collecting litter and completing minor maintenance tasks such as weeding. Filling in my daily log sheet can give useful information to other Gateway Visitor Centre volunteers and to the estate ranger. Similarly, reading reports from previous days helps me to be aware of any issues to watch out for or that might need attention.
Prior to COVID-19 the estate had around 35,000 visits per year. Outwith periods of restricted travel, visitor numbers remained high during the pandemic and are now steadily increasing. There is still however a notable absence of foreign tourists. It will be interesting to see how quickly previous numbers return. What has also changed is the pattern of visiting to the site. The level of weekday visits is much higher than it was in pre COVID-19 days. Also, with increasing recreational pressures, visitors tend to arrive earlier in the morning than in the past.
What have I learned so far?
One of the first things that I have learned is that visitors have different expectations and needs. Recognising their requirements and the ways in which they prefer to engage with staff and volunteers is important. Some visitors enjoy chatting with you about the site in general and also about themselves. Others want only advice on suitable walks and the facilities within the estate. Others again want more detailed and specialist information on topics such as the site’s geology, ecology, history, etc. In all cases, it is better to provide information in a conversational and interactive manner rather than adopting a lecturing approach. Visitors often have questions that I cannot answer so it’s important to know how to direct such enquiries to the appropriate source of information.
Glen Finglas is located within the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. With growing visitor numbers, it is important to be able to deal with issues such as vehicle parking, littering, fires, and camping outside permitted zones. This means having a knowledge of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code as well as appropriate Woodland Trust and National Park arrangements, regulations and bylaws. Though few visitors are deliberately unreasonable, it is occasionally helpful to be able to use tact and diplomacy when dealing with potentially difficult situations.
I also quickly discovered that visitors often want information about facilities in the immediate surrounding area and even far beyond Glen Finglas itself. Where is the nearest café? Where can I hire a bike? Is there a supermarket nearby? What is the best route to my next destination? Some questions can be more unexpected and challenging than others. For example, I have already been asked which are the best places to camp on Scotland’s 154 kilometre-long West Highland Way!
Why do I value the volunteering experience so much?
I find it very satisfying to be able to engage with visitors, to encourage and to share their enjoyment and sense of discovery. At the same time it is rewarding to listen and learn from what visitors themselves tell you. I enjoy being a member of a team who share the common purpose of making a positive difference. My own self-confidence in my role has grown through the enthusiasm and support of staff and other volunteers. I firmly believe that volunteering is not just about using whatever existing skills you have but also about learning and developing new ones. There are abundant formal and less formal opportunities to do this not just on-site but through the wider Woodland Trust network. And finally of course, what could be better than volunteering in such a special place as Glen Finglas itself!