David has already unloaded the white van as I arrive. There are bowsaws and loppers; Cornish shovels and fire beaters; a few scythes; a bag of gloves; and the wheelbarrow with the brew up kit. There are a dozen of us today, and we all pick some tools and carry them the quarter of a mile or so up the hill, to where we will be working.

We’ve been at Crowan Beacon earlier in the year, to cut a fire break in the gorse and bramble that covers the hill. Now we are back to do a burn. “Burning has been getting a bad name lately” explains Stuart, the project’s farm adviser, “but here in the West it is a very useful management tool. It will support the low intensity cattle grazing on the fresh growth that will follow, adding to the biodiversity of this moorland area.” It is the first time that our group has been involved in a burn, but David and Stuart have clearly done it before, and they are keen that the fire is well controlled: better burn small sections at a time than getting everyone stressed out - or burn the whole hill down. It’s Dave’s job to light the fire where it will be contained, bearing in mind the wind direction and the nature of the vegetation. It’s our job to ensure that the fire does not get away, so we post ourselves along the break armed with fire beaters and shovels. We are lucky: it is cold but sunny, and there is only a light, steady breeze – ideal conditions. There is not much undergrowth, so although the flames are spectacular, it's quickly over. Time for a cup of tea. Then we cut more breaks and light another section, and another after lunch. It’s all very well managed and turns out to be the easiest of all the tasks that we have done so far!

Jobs a good un - volunteers watching a burn on Crowan Beacon

Our group of Upstream Thinking volunteers, managed by Cornwall Wildlife Trust, carry out weekly practical nature conservation tasks in the catchment of the River Cober, north of Helston. The aim of the project is to improve the water quality of the river, and to enhance the biodiversity of the area.

So far, we have cleared ponds, cut bracken, gorse and bramble and repaired stone walls. We have tried our hand at the ancient craft of hedge laying and learned to use a scythe and a billhook. It’s the sort of work that gets you outdoors and keeps you fit. We work throughout the year. It’s extremely rare for a task to be cancelled because of foul weather, so you do need wellies and waterproofs. 

We’re a diverse group, men and women ranging in age from perhaps 18 to well into retirement, with different skills and fitness levels. Some of us have a particular interest in conservation work, others come for the chance to be active outdoors. They are a great bunch of people and it’s the team spirit (and the tea and cake) that keeps me coming back every week. This group is now fully subscribed, but there are others doing similar work throughout Cornwall that do need more volunteers. 

Upstream Thinking run another volunteer group in the Fal catchment. Cornwall Wildlife Trust have another weekly group working near Truro.

You can find further opportunities on www.do-it.org, or look on websites of organisations that you are interested in.

If you do not want to commit to regular volunteering, charities such as Cornwall Butterfly Conservation, the National Trust and Cornwall Wildlife Trust organise one-off conservation tasks -  look on their events pages for possible dates.

Do you have an experience that you would like to share, or do you know other groups in need of conservation volunteers? Please use the comment box below, or contact me at [email protected].