‘We Care’ is a three-year project funded by the Welsh Government’s Enabling Natural Resources and Well-being (ENRAW) scheme, which aims to connect the most socially and economically disadvantaged communities in North and South Wales with their local environment.
With a team of volunteers, we transform neglected green spaces – often local nature reserves or country parks - into a green community asset everyone can benefit from.
The programme, due to end in March 2022, has three strands that increase communities’ capacity to conserve, enhance and benefit from their green spaces and natural resources: ‘green teams’, ‘green communities’ and ‘green education’.
The ‘green teams’ strand of our work offers anyone over the age of 16 access to a free, 12-week programme to gain practical employability skills and qualifications, including in first aid, in strimming (including the opportunity to obtain a strimmer licence), countryside management, construction and horticulture. Participants can also gain an environmental-based Agored Cymru qualification. It’s an opportunity for people who feel far from the job market to gain or update their skills and get support for re-entry into education or employment, while improving the biodiversity and natural environment of a local area.
Local authorities and job centres signpost people to us when they need additional ‘soft’ skills, or to meet people and get into a work routine.
Our ‘green communities’ strand encourages and supports local volunteering and develops ‘community champions’ for the green spaces we look after. The programme recruits new volunteers for placements of up to 20 weeks but, keen to ensure the good work to restore the green spaces continues after we leave, we encourage and support the fostering of new relationships between our volunteers and existing community groups.
Between eight and 20 volunteers attend the various sites twice a week for six hours, during which time they plant trees, trim hedges, do dry stone walling and coppicing, learn to use brush cutting waterways for habitat management, and more. As some of the sites are SSSI or protected areas, so legally protected and important for plants’ and animals’ survival, some of this work is led or guided by the local authority and county ecologists.
Some of these volunteers come to us through social prescribing networks established in local areas because of the positive benefit of working outdoors on their wellbeing and mental health.
Finally, our ‘green education’ strand sees us working with schools near green spaces to encourage their engagement with the natural environment. We have run sessions on bees as pollinators, the dangers of plastics in our rivers and waterways while navigating the various restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
Groundwork Wales has strong relationships with local authorities, job centres, third sector organisations and more. They often signpost or refer volunteers to our projects.
Nurturing those relationships and forming new ones with existing community groups is vital to the success of volunteer-reliant programmes, such as WeCare. In South Wales, for example, we work with the likes of Voluntary Action Merthyr Tydfil and Interlink Rhondda Cynon Taf, which have databases of volunteer opportunities in the area and provide communities with information and advice.
When running a volunteer programme, it’s also important to consider what you can offer those who participate. We support the management and upkeep of these sites. Those responsible for their care provide us with a list of tasks that we work through. We bring new volunteers, often a budget they can spend, as well as expert knowledge, tools and equipment. Volunteers who come to us in need of work experience gain an opportunity to learn new skills from professionals and to work towards recognised Agored Cymru qualifications. And existing community groups gain access to potential new volunteers who often continue working with them at the site beyond the length of the WeCare project. At Cwm Clydach Countryside Park, in Rhondda Cynon Taf, for example, we expanded the volunteer base of one community group. Many of those volunteers stayed on and that group is now working with another in the area on collaborative projects. Those groups have successfully used social media to promote volunteer opportunities and attract new participants, as have we.
Facebook has worked particularly well in enabling us to foster a sense of community and community ownership of green spaces that may otherwise have been left unmanaged.
There are sometimes surprises when working in these largely unmanaged green spaces. We have encountered invertebrates, for example, as well as rare flowers. When unsure how best to approach their management and care, it’s vital to seek advice and guidance from local authority experts or specialist organisations. In our experience, they are more than happy to help.
The local authority is always our first port of call. They usually have countryside or ecological experts in-house, and every site managed by the local authority will have a management plan. On one occasion, a local lizard charity supported and advised us on approaching invertebrates on site, and Plantlife Cymru, a wild plant conservation charity working nationally and internationally to save threatened wildflowers, plants and fungi, has offered great support to us. Green plants play an important role in the carbon cycle and it’s vital those working with them properly manage and protect the many rare wildflowers and plants Wales hosts.
- Our KPIs include how many biodiversity enhancement projects we run; protected habitats we improved or created; and the area of land we improved or maintained. Success measurements of WeCare’s educational arm include how many schools and young people were engaged, and qualifications and accreditations gained. Examples of community engagement measurements include how many communities, adults and young people participated in our outdoor activities, and community organisations supported.