Last July, Xchange Scotland in partnership with Dean Castle Country Park – East Ayrshire Leisure, hosted a two week international volunteering project (workcamp) in Kilmarnock, Scotland. Jess Wharf, a Volunteer Coordinator from Dean Castle Country Park – East Ayrshire Leisure tells us more about what was the group of international volunteers from Germany, Italy, Spain and France up to and how they enjoyed their volunteering experience in Scotland.
A very un-Scottish summer
’It’s not normally like this!’ was a constant refrain during XS01 Dean Castle, the workcamp that took place in Kilmarnock last July. The very un-Scottish heatwave saw even our Catalan and Italian volunteers complaining it was too hot and from myself and the other delicate northern Europeans, there was desperate shade seeking and constant sun cream application. It was a strange change for me to be apologising for the lack of traditional soggy Scottish weather, rather than trying to motivate increasingly damp volunteers!
Our mission for the two week workcamp was to improve an unused piece of land called Queen’s Drive in Kilmarnock for wildlife to create a new nature reserve as well as carrying out some practical conservation in Dean Castle Country Park in the second week. We had French, German, Italian and Catalan volunteers all new to Scotland and ready to get stuck in and help nature.
We threw them in at the deep end on the first day creating an insect hotel. Insect hotel? This strange idea drew some bewildered looks from the group before we explained it; a human-built habitat especially for insects! The group hammered in stakes, hefted pallets, sawed wood, gathered twigs and finally attached chicken wire around the outside to keep our creation together. Brave Bexeven climbed on top to test the stability! It was great first day task, getting everyone involved using new tools and seeing a clear result at the end of our first day before heading back to the residential centre, knowing we’d already improved the area for wildlife.
Ride My Pony
Helena from Germany, who’d recently been volunteering in Nicaragua, introduced us to a new energising song ‘Ride My Pony’! This quickly became the unofficial anthem of the group. We ended up singing it most days in order to stave off the inevitable after lunch energy slump in the heat and more than once, an attempted group siesta!
Whilst working at Queen’s Drive, we met a local resident dog-walking who told us that as a child when she’d come to this area to play, it was always called Sandybridge by the children and community. After that it was decided.Our future nature reserve was Sandybridge! A much better name than Queen’s Drive, we all agreed.
What else did we do? Some impressive fence removal tested our muscles one day, some gentle wildflower planting rested them and a serious amount of Himalayan Balsam pulling at Sandybridge got our species ID skills up to the mark. This invasive species cause river bank erosion and our hard-working workcamp volunteers had pulled a couple of small mountains-worth of Himalayan Balsam by the end! Not to mention testing our woodworking making bird boxes and installing some new steps at the Park.
Wonderful Workcamp Leaders
Dani & Bex, our wonderful workcamp leaders, are the real stars of this workcamp tale. They brought very different skills to the camp; Dani, a volunteer of two years standing at Dean Castle Country Park and ecology graduate, had the conservation side covered and Bex, a workcamp veteran and freshly back from attending the Agents of Change training course in Hungary had the intercultural and leadership skills side of things down. Dani’s fabulous pizzas made a real celebration of the last day and Bex shaving her head for her birthday was certainly a day to remember!
The ‘7 mile walk’
Another memorable moment was our unintentional 7 mile trek along the River Ayr Way in the beautiful East Ayrshire countryside. We went out to repair a broken fence with the perpetually enthusiastic Howie, one of the Countryside Rangers. After finishing the repair, Howie suggested we walk to Sorn the next village along the River Ayr Way and he would drive the minibus round there then meet us halfway. ‘Only 2 miles, less an hour’s toddle in the sunshine’ he assured us… After an hour, we were somewhat confused not to have met Howie yet. It turned out to be a slightly optimistic estimate distance and almost 7 miles further on, we arrived in Sorn! We know had a new unit of measurement; a Howie mile!
The last day
The last day of the workcamp, I was delighted to get to the Park and see some lovely soft West Coast drizzle starting. At last Scottish weather for the workcamp volunteers! Perhaps they were not quite as excited as me to see it but at least they’d got a taste of the usual Scottish summer before they left. In an anti-climactic, exhausted, relieved, disbelieving, melancholy end-of-workcamp mood, the volunteers set off back home to their own countries but not until after we’d sang one more round of ‘Ride My Pony’!
Written by Jess Wharf, Volunteer Coordinator, Dean Castle Country Park