My wild life – Trust member Catherine Downes tells us how volunteering keeps her sharp

How long have you been a member of the Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust? Why did you become a member?
My eldest Grandchild is 13 so I think it must have been around 10 years ago as I wanted to sign up for the children’s part of the magazine.

I have always taken the grandchildren to various nature reserves and to children’s activities in their early years.  I’ve always had a keen interest in nature and ecology.  I can remember work being done to Sunnybank and the early development of other nature reserves.

Becoming a member had always been something at the back of my mind that I’d not gotten around to but when someone stopped me in Tesco one day and asked if I’d thought about membership I said, ‘Yes, for decades, but I’ve not got round to it!’.  I joined up then.

Why do you volunteer with the Data for Nature project?  How did you get involved in it?
I have previously volunteered with the Trust, dipping in and out of the Wild at Heart project over the years.  It was there I came across Julie (Riley, Ecologist).  I assisted Julie on some Phase 1 surveys and really enjoyed it.  When the Data for Nature project came up I think Julie got in touch with me and I was happy to get involved.

For me, volunteering on this project helps my brain and I’m taking on new learning throughout.

Tell me more about your volunteer role.
I volunteered for any survey I could manage.  I co-ordinated the Skylark surveys and attended a Nightjar survey.  I’ve done a Winter Tree and early Spring Tree survey, a meadow survey, dragonflies and damselflies, and a Wildflower indicator survey at Moss Valley.  I did the Harvest Mouse survey although I was convinced beforehand that we were surveying for Dormice!

I would like to have done the newt survey as I have newts at home in my pond but unfortunately I couldn’t make it.

Before most of the surveys we had some training with Julie or another member of staff.  Julie is a very good trainer and her delivery was great.  She was organised and I thought she gave us just the right amount of information.

What has been your favourite survey?
I think it has to be the Ancient Woodland Wildflower survey at Moss Valley.  It was early evening and I carried out the survey with a friend who also volunteered on the project.  The bluebells were out and we were the only people around.  It was such a nice environment.

What do you love about your role?  What surprises you about it?
I loved getting to know a team of people who consistently worked on the Skylark surveys.  It was nice to work with the team.

I was surprised how bright and keen the young volunteers were, particularly on the dragonfly and damselfly surveys.  With their young eyesight and sharp brains they took what we had learned in the training and used that so well to quickly identify the different species on the surveys.  One of the team had even marked out in the book in advance what we were likely to see on the survey.

What are you most proud of doing/achieving in your role?
That’s a difficult one to answer!  I’m not very organised or methodical but I did manage to co-ordinate a group for a monthly survey.  I didn’t prepare the kit but I did make sure everyone was in the right place at the right time!

What is the most enjoyable part of your role?
Meeting people with similar enthusiasms.  There is such a mix of people volunteering on the Data for Nature project – young, old, and from a range of backgrounds.

What is the stand out memory from your time volunteering with the Data for Nature project?
Probably coming across the fantastic environment at Moss Valley.  It was bluebell season and similar to the woodland environment I remember whilst growing up in Kent.

Another memorable moment is when I volunteered on the Nightjar survey at Wyming Brook.  We were early and climbed up a Bilberry bank – I’ll be going back to pick some of them!  We were walking around listening for Nightjar when one landed right in front of us.  Someone was passing binoculars around a group of about 6 of us and everyone was standing there commenting on him, but I just couldn’t see it!  It was dark but everyone else could see it through the binoculars!

Could you leave us with three pieces of advice/places to visit/something to do/a spectacle to see within the Sheffield & Rotherham area?
Moss Valley is fantastic!  It’s a delightful place and so quiet.  I’d love to recommend it as a place to visit but there’s a balance between people enjoying the reserve as it is and it becoming too busy that the peaceful environment is gone.

A lot of the surveys were in the early hours of the morning and for some we met at around 3am.  I don’t normally get up this early so it was really special to enjoy wildlife at this rare time.  I remember on the Skylark surveys the landscape would be covered in mist and we would see it getting burnt away as the morning went on.

Nabil (Abbas, Ecologist) did a really nice public walk for the users of one nature reserve.  There were around 16 of us and it was good to discover more about the reserve from an expert.  I would welcome more guided walks, perhaps for members.  Although I can take a walk on my own through the reserves it is interesting to learn more from the people that know the areas so well.  During the walk with Nabil, one of the rangers, Hannah, was doing a litter pick after a rave of some sort.  There was something about seeing an employee of the Wildlife Trust just going about her work, on her own, cleaning up the environment after others.