DofE with a difference: Young people volunteering to help wildlife at home

When Aaron, from Wallace High School, applied to do his Duke of Edinburgh’s Award volunteering with Ulster Wildlife’s Grassroots Challenge no one expected the volunteering to finish before lockdown ended. Read his lockdown challenge story.

Aaron Keown, Year 10W, Wallace High School

I have always been interested in wildlife and conservation. My two school principals at Ballinderry Primary School, Mrs Magowan and Mrs Galbraith, encouraged me to get involved and represent my class on the school Eco Council. We worked towards getting our school Eco flag and even managed to have solar panels fitted on the school roof.

At Wallace High School, the opportunity came up to volunteer with Ulster Wildlife’s Grassroots Challenge for my Bronze Duke of Edinburgh Award, and I thought it sounded very interesting. I imagined it would involve doing activities with my group of friends from school, such as tree planting and visiting nature reserves. I thought the social aspect would be fun. However, the Universe had other plans and a global pandemic threw a spanner in the works!

Aaron WHS

Led by Dawn, from Ulster Wildlife, we carried out meetings with each other by Zoom, and because of lockdown we had to think more locally. Our own back gardens and local communities became the source of ideas for helping wildlife in our areas.

Through our meetings I learnt about issues affecting wildlife globally and closer to home in Northern Ireland. We carried out a range of projects which were interesting and varied.

Facebook Wallace High School DofE Group

I learnt about bats and their eco-systems and built two bat boxes and put them up in a tree in my back garden to encourage them to nest.

I learnt about how litter and plastic affected the habitats of small animals, birds and sea creatures. I carried out a litter pick along the hedgerows and roads near my house. I was shocked by the extent of the problem in a rural area like mine and it definitely opened my eyes to the problem which is widespread in Northern Ireland.

Daubenton's bat (c) Dale Sutton 2020Vision

Daubenton's bat (c) Dale Sutton 2020Vision

Over an icy January, I constructed a bird feeder and put out water and seeds for the birds, and learnt how to identify our garden visitors including a friendly robin! I then took part in the Big Garden Bird Watch held by the RSPB as a citizen science project. I saw coal tits, pigeons and robins. This was my favourite part of volunteering.

I learnt about how light pollution from towns and cities can interfere with local wildlife, especially birds and bats who rely on light cues for roosting. I took part in a Star Count on a cold clear February night, as another citizen science project with C.P.R.E The Countryside Charity. With the help of a star-chart App on my phone I identified the constellation of Orion and counted the number of stars visible within it. I expected to count a lot because I live in a rural area, but was surprised when I could only see 9. This shows that there is a fair bit of light pollution near me from the towns of Moira and Lisburn.

I also took part in a Zoom conference on Education for Sustainable Development which aimed to collect the thoughts of young people on how topics such as climate change, conservation and local wildlife issues could be addressed in youth clubs. I enjoyed listening to young people from all over Northern Ireland and adding my own experiences and ideas to the debate.

In my own back garden, I prepared a piece of ground and planted wildflower seeds to encourage bees and butterflies to visit the garden in spring and summer.

Buff-tailed BumbleBee (c) Jon Hawkins Surrey Hills Photography

Buff-tailed BumbleBee (c) Jon Hawkins Surrey Hills Photography

I look forward to eventually meeting up with my friends, to see how everyone has been getting on with their projects when lockdown ends, and getting a chance to travel a bit further away to continue my wildlife work. Hopefully we will get a chance to plant those trees as a group and have some fun!