It was late February 1959, yet spring was in the air. Enjoying the day on Box Hill, Surrey, botanist David Bellamy was surprised to find a group of young people ripping up plants in a recently-declared Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Discovering they were not vandals but volunteers clearing scrub with The Conservation
Corps, he enthusiastically joined in!
The Conservation Corps, now The Conservation Volunteers (TCV), is celebrating its 60th anniversary. It has a strong Sheffield connection, with 18 TCV community groups within 15 miles of Sheffield, including Action for Stannington and Rivelin Valley Conservation Group, Ecclesall Forum and Banner Cross Neighbourhood Group. For four years there was also a TCV Sheffield shop on Ecclesall Road, which as well as selling items for the cause carried out upcycling, hosted a secret cake club and was a pop up space for local artisan crafts such as candle making.
Nationally, David Bellamy is still with us as a vice-president but the world has changed. These days unseasonal sunshine is scary. TCV too has changed over the decades but it has held firm to one key insight: conservation volunteering is great for people and communities as well as nature.
When the Council for Nature founded The Conservation Corps in January 1959 it aimed to give young people some of the perceived benefits of National Service (then newly abolished). What those young volunteers gained - a sense of purpose, personal achievement and sheer fun - delighted and inspired them.
In 1970 the organisation became an independent charity, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) with the Duke of Edinburgh as patron. Supported by people like Sir David Attenborough and Bill Oddie, it expanded its activities, including a registered membership scheme for 3,000 volunteers.
In 1977 it set up a unique ecological park opposite the Tower of London, working with the London Queen's Silver Jubilee Committee.
Throughout the 1980s, BTCV embraced urban environments and community action in the UK and abroad. Midweek projects gave unemployed and retired people more opportunities to get involved.
BTCV established working holidays across Europe and launched the first of two successful Million Tree Campaigns following the Great Storm of 1987.
The decade closed with BTCV membership at 10,000, its Natural Break conservation holiday programme the largest of its kind in Britain.
In the 1990s, BTCV pursued its goals for people and society through the government's New Deal and Millennium Volunteers programme, for which BTCV received the largest first round funding, leading to more than 3,000 volunteering placements.
The first BTCV Green Gym, set up in 1998 with ‘social prescribing’ pioneer Dr William Bird of Sonning Common, Berkshire, highlighted the health benefits of conservation volunteering. The social significance of BTCV’s activities continued to grow in the new millennium. BTCV's Environments for All encouraged people from under-represented groups to take up environmental conservation.
In 2001, BTCV was one of the UK’s largest environmental sector providers of training and support for the unemployed, while over £4 million from the New Opportunities Fund went to 500 community projects in deprived areas through the BTCV-managed People's Places Award Scheme. Sad eyesores near shopping centres became green community assets thanks to BTCV and the Prudential Grass Roots programme.
The importance of conservation volunteering for health and well-being is reflected in the flourishing BTCV (now TCV) Green Gyms. TCV’s Community Network supports around 1,000 local groups, with a dedicated website, discounts, funding information and access to grants plus more.
In TCV’s diamond anniversary year, TCV goes on inspiring people across the UK to volunteer to improve local environments and biodiversity. People from many communities are actively involved, well beyond the keen young conservers of the 1960s.