The Welsh Government-funded Valleys Regional Park (VRP) initiative aims to unlock and maximise the Valleys’ social and environmental potential, as well as its cultural heritage.
Since 2020, Groundwork Wales has delivered the VRP Guardians scheme, which provides nature-based activities across the South Wales Valleys’ regional parks area – from Carmarthenshire to Pontypool, between the M4 and the Brecon Beacons - for local people and communities, particularly the most vulnerable. These activities are run in and around the 12 so-called ‘VRP Discovery Gateways’, which include country parks such as Dare Valley Country Park, and heritage sites such as Blaenavon World Heritage Centre.
Groundwork Wales has a history of working in the Valleys, supporting the landscape, people and communities to change places and lives. Our activities aim to improve the environment, and enhance communities’ land management skills, as well as increase local food growing.
We work closely with the park rangers, local authorities, leisure centres and voluntary trusts who manage the various parks to identify programmes of work needed before working with small groups of volunteers to deliver it.
Our practical conservation volunteering may involve clearing gullies; hacking out invasive species; cutting back brambles to allow forest floor bluebells to grow; clearing paths; litter picking; building or repairing steps, paths and fences; planting orchards and other trees, and constructing sensory gardens or ponds.
The activities, part of a programme of practical conservation volunteering, help support people and communities to connect with and look after their landscape, take ownership of green space and improve the environment. They also meet new people and develop a range of skills while working in the great outdoors, with some gaining qualifications in strimming, hanging basket planting, and woodwork projects.
We had originally planned to deliver 10-week programmes of activities, one day a week, but some of the larger sites, such as Parc Bryn Bach in Tredegar and Dare Valley Country Park in Aberdare, have settled into a regular weekly routine.
We also run environmental wellbeing sessions. These wellbeing sessions enable people to be outside walking, talking and learning about nature while meeting others. We work with health authorities and groups specialising in supporting people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s, strokes, and poor mental health.
Our volunteers range from 16 years old to retirement age and their backgrounds vary from the long-term unemployed, to retired professionals who wish to remain active. Everyone works together to achieve whatever the daily goal may be, and friendships are often made along the way.
Groundwork Wales is fortunate to have decades of experience running community-based, green activities. So, when it comes to seeking inspiration for this project, we’re able to tap into our collective experiences and lessons learned.
But we do look outside our organisation for inspiration, too. Relationships are key with any community work, and we work closely with local authorities, employment agencies, as well as health and third sector organisations - all of which are important not only for volunteer referrals, but also for the expertise, advice and support they offer.
We have many volunteers with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. An important lesson I’ve learned during my time delivering this work is not to assume volunteers’ knowledge, because that will vary between individuals, and to spend time explaining why a job needs to be done. Many people who visit a park won’t know why a specific plant is good for the biodiversity in that area and needs to be preserved, that it’s been there thousands of years and supports other plants or animals. Likewise, they won’t know that another plant only arrived in the last few years, it doesn't support anything, and it is rampantly overtaking everything else so needs to be carefully removed. After receiving that information, volunteers generally feel better prepared and motivated to spend a morning removing an invasive species in the fresh air, for example, before enjoying a cup of tea around a bonfire. Basing our sessions around an activity also supports team building.
Engaging new volunteers is an ongoing challenge. We have worked with private companies, such as mobile provider EE, to organise volunteering stints on the Joseph Parry Cottage site in Merthyr as part of its corporate volunteering programme. We also cleared some grounds around the local voluntary organisations.
We often call on the skills of our volunteers and wider community, but we would like to expand the pool of experts we can draw from. It would be great to do more walking and talking sessions with external environmental experts, for example.
While this project is doing well, there have been challenges. Covid-19 meant all the projects closed for a while, for example, and it remains difficult to organise social group activities. However, our sessions are important social opportunities for volunteers and the impact of the pandemic on people’s wellbeing and mental health means getting outside has never been more critical.