Working for wellbeing of people and place: Celebrating active conservation volunteering

The Burren National Park, Ireland

Last weekend I was fortunate to receive an invitation to speak at the Burrenbeo Trust’s first ever ‘Working for wellbeing of people and place’ conference held in the beautiful Burren in Co. Clare (Ireland). The event was enthused and motivated by all those who attended who came together to celebrate conservation volunteering and community participation.

The event began with a walking tour of the Burren National Park close to the village of Corofin where we learnt about the native wildlife and history of this spectacular landscape as well as the work of Burrenbeo Trust, connecting people with nature. This was then followed by two inspirational keynote sessions in the community hall.

Networking Session

Firstly, Duncan Stewart (‘Eco Eye’ TV Presenter and Chairman of Green Foundation Ireland) spoke about the ‘Role of communities in advocating active conservation’. His talk highlighted the existing challenges we face with climate change and environmental degradation. Most central to his message was empowerment of people and how working together collectively through a bottom-up approach could bring about change in addressing these issues. He also focused on the collaborative volunteering and community model, found in the Burren, as a way forward for the future; sharing, learning and working together to make a difference to each and every one of us.

Secondly, Stuart Brooks (CEO of John Muir Trust and Chairman of the IUCN) spoke about ‘Wellbeing and the conservation of wild place: Lessons from the John Muir Trust’. His talk gave an overview of the work of the John Muir Trust, a charity dedicated to protecting and enhancing wild places. One of the main themes he focused on was peoples’ spiritual connection to a place, their sense of wellbeing as well as the positive relationships between people and nature. He also spoke of the need to scale up our existing data information on the impacts of nature on people’s wellbeing from individual to citizens’ levels, harnessing the strength of collective participation and knowledge sharing.

Kinvara, Ireland

On Saturday, there were three speaking sessions, of which I was part of the ‘Nature and Wellbeing’ session. In this there were two other talks who I will now speak about. Firstly, John Duncan, a practicing GP in Co. Clare and business member of the Burrenbeo Trust spoke about ‘Getting outdoors: The health benefits’. In his talk he gave a detailed overview of what we know so far of the health benefits associated with outdoor activities as well as future directions. Some of the papers he mentioned included Pretty et al. 2005 ‘The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise’ as well as Lovell et al. 2015 ‘Understanding how environmental enhancement and conservation activities may benefit health and wellbeing: A systematic review’. Specifically, he highlighted the need for more quantitative evidential support with few small scale studies currently existing. Secondly, David Staunton co-founder of Walk Inniú (Inniú in Irish means ‘today’) and is an integrative counselling psychotherapist incorporating ecotherapy approaches. In his talk ‘heart, mountain, ocean and soul’ he spoke about the connection between people and nature as well as nature’s ability to help with emotional self-regulation and finding our ‘ecological self’. He also spoke about his work on the ‘Ecotherapy Hedge School’, a group that engages in the outdoors through interactive walks, talks and workshops across Dublin actively learning about our self-awareness to and connection to natural spaces.

Following this, everyone came together for the ‘Conversations and Conservation’ interactive group workshop, facilitated by Mary Hawkes Green (Burren Centre for Creative Leadership). As part of this we discussed the challenges and solutions we have each found which provided a chance to interact and learn from other’s experiences. During this, there were various issues which were talked about in greater depth and provided an opportunity to put forward solutions; some of these included greater collaboration between conservation volunteering groups and academia, the use of social media to enhance people’s knowledge of their work as well as increased work on impact measurement.

Fieldtrip on the Ballyreen coastline, along the Wild Atlantic Way

In the afternoon, the Burrenbeo Trust organized four fieldtrips across the Burren, show casing their ongoing work. These included responsible tourism and managing impacts, stone walls and beyond – an integral part of our heritage, butterfly monitoring – an over the shoulder look at walking a butterfly transect, and measuring the past. As each of these looked equally interesting, it was hard for me to select which one to attend. I will briefly speak about the one I attended: responsible tourism and managing impacts. As part of the fieldtrip, we drove down to the coast of Ballyreen situated along the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ coastal path and learnt about the current impacts of tourism on the landscape from Mary Howard and Kate Lavender. We were shown two of the activities that volunteers engage in to conserve this coastal path which includes litter picking as well as protecting the land formation (e.g. dismantling and reversing the building of cairns). Please click here for more information on the second of these conservation practices.

To finish off the event, everyone came back to the hall for a communal dinner. The food was both foraged from the Burren as well as collected from all those who generously contributed items from their gardens. Local chef William McElhinney (Wild Strands) and a team of helpers produced some amazing dishes for us to all enjoy as we sat and engaged in conversations about what we had learnt, the next steps we will take and the good time we had had.

Myself presenting my ongoing work with The conservation Volunteers (Photo by @abbeyleixbog)

From this weekend I have been deeply moved by the enthusiasm and community spirit of all those who attended and organized the event. I have taken away with me new perspectives of people’s connections to nature, both its preservation and its central place in our communities. I have gathered and taken on-board solutions to universal challenges which many of those in the conservation volunteering sector can often face. Finally, I have learnt about the importance of the ‘community’ in working together collaboratively to learn and share from each other as well as to help make a difference both locally and collectively to bring about future change.

I would also like to say a huge thank you to all those at the Burrenbeo Trust, the Burrenbeo Conservation Volunteers, the community of Corofin and all those who attended for inviting me to engage and be part of the event. May your next one be as equally as brilliant and I hope to see you again.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

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