Coronavirus, community conservation and the green recovery

Can a community and volunteer based approach to conservation projects lead the green recovery after coronavirus?

Callum Sinclair, Project Manager, Scottish Invasive Species Initiative
May 2021

As we emerge from the 2021 lockdown, we reflect on the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative.   As a project we weathered the Covid storm surprisingly well.  Although activities were constrained, we kept invasive plant species in check and maintained our mink monitoring and trapping network.  We credit this to taking a community-based approach to invasive species management – and so we pondered what we have learnt and whether other projects could take a similar approach to help deliver a ‘green recovery’ after the pandemic.

Community volunteers in Nairn.

Community control vs Covid

At the heart of the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative are the local people who care for their local environment.  An initial and ongoing programme of awareness raising and education activities raised the profile of invasive species and their impacts. This generated significant buy in and enthusiasm to get involved from land managers, local groups and organisations, businesses, and individual volunteers.  Having recruited and enthused, we support and enable people to actively volunteer by providing training and helping them gain qualifications and experience.  This network of committed people is gaining the skills needed to make a difference to their local places – in this instance controlling invasive non-native species – both now and in the future.

When the spring 2020 lockdown occurred we weren’t, like everyone else, able to carry on as usual. It was unclear if we were about to lose a year and give up the gains made by the project since 2018.  Rather than regress, however, what we witnessed instead were the investments in embedding skills and training with local communities paying back. Farmers and land managers used their staff (trained by us) to carry on giant hogweed treatment when we couldn’t, and local people headed out to pull Himalayan balsam at sites we’d worked on together previously.  Mink raft monitoring volunteers used their daily exercise to visit and check their rafts – telling us that this small activity gave them a purpose and made them feel they were making a difference during an immensely difficult time.  The project didn’t grind to a halt – far from it – in fact we perhaps were able to snatch a glimpse of what might happen when the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative is no more.

We believe that this approach – investing in communities, training volunteers and engaging people locally can provide effective and sustainable benefits – as endorsed by the enthusiasm of our volunteers and partners to carry on invasive species control when we weren’t around. 

To date volunteers have contributed a total of 2,181 days to control invasive plants and 119 volunteers have been put through their pesticide application course.

Building community resilience

Taking a community and volunteer-based approach – rather than just employing contractors on an ongoing basis – also provides benefits to the people involved.  Volunteering, pretty much any volunteering, is much more than just the activity itself.  In our case people are making a real contribution to their local environment. But the benefits are much wider than that. Being involved within their community, meeting other people and socialising, being physically active and engaging with nature – these all contribute to improved physical and mental wellbeing.  We believe these benefits have helped give people greater personal resilience to the individual and collective stresses we have all felt during the coronavirus pandemic.

Our engagement work in communities is wide and varied.  It ranges from providing education resources for remote use and our direct education work in schools, to partnerships with farmers and universities to find alternative and innovative techniques for invasive species control.  Engaging and enabling land managers to be a central part in the  development of potentially more sustainable and affordable invasive control methods – such as sheep grazing to control giant hogweed – helps these businesses to see alternative control strategies and be more resilient to future change.

Our Macduff sheep grazing trial in partnership with a local farmer is investigating if and how managed sheep grazing can be used as a form of chemical-free, low intensity giant hogweed control.

Environmental benefits

This community-based approach, as well as empowering people, also has environmental benefits. 

Invasive non-native species require long term management and commitment.  They often produce large numbers of seeds or have persistent rhizomes and require treatment year on year. The American mink needs ongoing control to continue to depress population numbers and counter inward migration. These animals travel great distances to secure new breeding territories and can quickly repopulate previously managed areas. Having an upskilled, enthusiastic and committed local community group willing to, for example, ‘adopt’ a section of river to deliver annual plant control and/or mink control can be effective through their collective efforts – both  providing sustainable and economically effective approaches to management.

Thanks to the monitoring and trapping work of 360 volunteers maintaining 670 rafts and traps, 388 mink have been removed. This provides benefits to the local native wildlife populations, particularly water voles and ground nesting birds.

Reaping the rewards

Restored river habitats and, in turn, landscapes that are free from invasive species give so much back to us.  Our rivers are important for recreation and provide brilliant opportunities to exercise and have fun or places for quiet reflection to boost mental wellbeing.  The connection between people and nature – widely recognised as providing significant health benefits – is further enhanced when people have directly contributed to the care and conservation of the environment.

The importance of connecting with nature has been widely recognised throughout the pandemic.  Many of us discovered, or rediscovered, our local green spaces and enjoyed, and needed, the serenity these places and being outdoors brought.  

As we carefully step into what, we hope, will be our recovery from the pandemic, we have the opportunity as a society to reshape and rethink the way we do things.   We can find new and sustainable ways to work which provide long-term benefits both to people and the environment – the “green recovery”.  For us at the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative we’re not sure that is actually such a new thing – it’s the ethos by which we’ve worked since we started.

Our rivers are important places for recreation and reflection.

Is the model sustainable?

The approach we take – working locally with partners, communities and individuals – undoubtedly benefits both people and the environment and fosters strong connections between the two. 

Volunteer input to the project – 9,794 volunteer days contributed, equal to 46 full time equivalent staff from March 2018 to March 2021 – is incredible and encouraging.  The work completed through these contributions, given by 650 people, would simply not be affordable to the project otherwise.  Each and every contribution – large or small – is important to us but, perhaps more significantly, important to the person donating their time.

The Scottish Invasive Species Initiative continues to build this community network so the work we have started can be a self-sustaining after we have gone.  The work continued by our volunteers and community network during the 2020 coronavirus lockdown suggests this can be the case. But we recognise that to sustain, connect and coordinate a volunteer network to a common and shared purpose will need support and resources.  Maintaining enthusiasm, preventing ‘volunteer fatigue’, continually recruiting and supporting volunteers, training and providing local co-ordination are all essential to the success of this approach. However, the scale of return we find would suggest these investments are both extremely cost effective and environmentally beneficial.

The scale of achievement in 2020, despite working restrictions due to the pandemic.

So, while the coronavirus pandemic has reached every part of our society and touched so many of us personally, we believe there are lessons from the period that can help us in the future.  Investing in people and communities is always worth it to build support, capacity and commitment.  When investments are maintained the benefits continue.  If those investments cease, then the goodwill and benefits generated from all that has gone before are lost. 

As a project we have emerged relatively unscathed from the coronavirus lockdown – we know many have not been so fortunate. We believe the community-based approach we have adopted and the hard work and dedication of our many, many volunteers have been central to this.  We simply can’t thank these people enough.

To find out more about our work and how to get involved visit our website, follow us on social media or contact us on sisi@nature.scot

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