Growing through a Pandemic – Gardening Volunteer Blog

A nurse, an unemployed writer and a retired teacher go into a forest. This could be the start of a joke, but instead it’s the start of the Thursday morning volunteer day with the RSPB at Sherwood Forest.

Volunteering like this is a win-win. For volunteers like me, the unemployed writer, it’s a rare chance to forget lockdown, step away from the hundreds of job applications and get out into nature. For others, it’s a chance to focus on a wholly different set of problems to the ones that they might face when they’re working from home. And for the RSPB, who estimate that one hour of volunteering is worth £11, it means free help and support.

Last week saw our eclectic team removing dead foliage from around the amphitheatre and banking it up neatly behind the two, new wooden signs. And this week sees more dead-heading, this time around the high bank that separates the amphitheatre from the footpath. While this seems like undramatic, unexciting work, it makes the areas being cleared look a lot better and is also a surprising way of connecting with our surroundings.

In the course of stripping back the foliage, a frog bounds out of the undergrowth. One of the RSPB staff, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the character of Friar Tuck who is sometimes seen around the visitors’ centre, identifies it as the common frog. For a common species, it’s very distinctive, with yellowish streaks on its body and dark blotches. The frog is seemingly interested in what’s happening to its habitat as it keeps hopping back over.

Jo and Richard keeping the beds tidy. Gardeners are often followed by Robins looking for a tasty meal...

The other regular visitor is a robin, eager to probe the disturbed ground for food, and also happy to watch from a safe distance, and dart in when he spots something we can’t see. My knowledge of what species I’m looking at is really bad, but even I know a robin when I see one, and another volunteer points out some siskins which have made a home in the trees around the centre.

Moments like this mean that volunteering at Sherwood Forest always manages to provide something special. Even on days like this, when there are grey skies, moisture in the air and every temptation to stay in with a fleece blanket and a hot chocolate, nature has a way of breaking up the day. Birds swoop around the centre, there are quick, darting movements in the treeline and sudden stillness.

And the work is never finished, which tends to make me feel really humble. You’re part of a team who, in my case, know loads more about plant species and wildlife than I do, and you’re never completely done. There are always more bits that need dead-heading, more areas to plant, paths to repair and planting to do. And if you’re in danger of being idle, you can end up digging out the hundreds of unwelcome dock plants in the verges.

In the middle of a pandemic, something about this is reassuring. Everyone who walks past is wearing a mask or putting them back in their pocket. There are reminders about social distancing all over the centre, and hand sanitiser. But for all the human problems, the seasons carry on changing regardless. And while the nurse, the unemployed writer and the retired teacher get on with their work, Sherwood Forest gets on with growing.