Environmental Volunteering: A Case Study with The Belfast Hills Partnership
The Belfast Hills Partnership (BHP) is an independent charity which seeks to improve how the hills are managed. We do this by working with our partners including local councils (Belfast City, Lisburn and Castlereagh Borough Council, and Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council), government departments, community groups, nature conservation organisations and businesses committed to caring for the Belfast Hills and their people. These organisations are also joined by people from the farming community and individuals who share the organisations vision for the hills.
They all have pledged to work together to solve problems and forge new initiatives to benefit
What we do
The Belfast Hills Partnership works to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Hills and
they do this in a number of ways:
- Strive to protect the wildlife of the Belfast Hills
- Combat invasive species that threaten our native plants and animals
- Record wildlife and protect habitats
- Improve access and develop routes.
- Produce leaflets, provide information and facilitate volunteering opportunities
- Commission environmental research
- Organise events, produce newsletters and manage website
- Support local agriculture and communities
- Scrutinise planning applications that may affect the Belfast Hills
- Make sure government departments consider the Belfast Hills when making decisions
- Encourage healthy walking
How we do it
The Belfast Hills Partnership works in many ways to achieve its core aims however the inclusion of young people is key to the future development of the area, its conservation and protection.
The Belfast Hills Partnership is delighted to be part of The Big Lottery Fund’s new project
called ‘Our Bright Future’. Our Bright Future is a forward-thinking social movement that’s
about supporting young people to lead progressive change in their communities and local
The Belfast Hills Partnership is tackling environmental issues and the lack of opportunity for
young people by using one problem to help another. It’s about unleashing the potential of
young people, so they can make a big, positive impact and become an unstoppable force for
Many of our sessions and volunteering schemes are run in conjunction with Millennium
Volunteers and the John Muir Trust, which means that participants will gain nationally
recognised certificates and awards for their work. These, along with the experience young
people will gain from taking part will greatly enhance their employability and CV.
There are three main programmes volunteers can engage with in the Belfast Hills
Partnership; the best route for each participant is determined by their age, group they are
associated with, or their availability.
- 11 – 18 years – the Partnership is working alongside formal education, youth provision, community groups and uniformed organisations such as scouts. Groups can choose to do one of the Belfast Hill’s ready to go sessions (details below), take part in the John Muir Award scheme, improve their grounds for wildlife, or take part in one of the Partnership’s other exciting projects such as Salmon in the Classroom, or various creative projects combining the environment with art or drama.
- 16 – 24 years – in this programme, the Partnership welcomes young individuals who are not part of any group, but just have a desire to support the organisation’s work and increase their practical experience. They also work with training organisations, community groups and other support organisations who often have a link with employability or supporting positive mental health and emotional wellbeing e.g. organisations such as New Horizons, People 1st, and Prince’s Trust for example.
- The Partnership would also work closely with colleges and universities to deliver talks, support student research projects, manage the Belfast Hills Society, and attend student volunteering fairs. Individuals or groups can take part in a range of tasks with other like-minded individuals of the same age, as well as tailored training courses and internships throughout the year as part of the John Muir Award e.g. Trainee Ranger Scheme, Undergraduate Environmental Skills Programme or Development Week. Young people can also gain recognition through the Millennium Volunteers programme for their sustained commitment to the Belfast Hills Partnership.
- 16 years and over – The Partnership has a general volunteer group called the ‘Conservation Volunteers’ that meet on Thursday mornings or one Saturday morning a month. They carry out a huge variety of practical tasks to suit a wide range of ages, abilities and motivations. Parental permission is needed for any volunteer aged 16–17. For anyone younger than 16 that wishes to attend, they must have an accompanying parent or guardian. Everyone who is capable of a little light work and enjoys spending time outside is welcome to join in. The role is flexible, so volunteers can decide how much or little time they commit.
Below is an example of some of the days or tasks groups can do with the Belfast Hills Partnership’s 11 – 24-year programmes. They are all aimed at giving young people positive experiences of the wild places right on their doorstep. These can be undertaken as a one-off activity or day, or as part of a longer John Muir Award. There are three Levels to the John Muir Award. The Discovery Award (4 days) is undertaken first. They encourage further activity and involvement by moving on to the next Levels – Explorer (8 days) and Conserver (20 days) Awards.
All of the sessions are FREE to participate in!
- Hikes – They lead hikes across the Belfast Hills, with different trails to suit all abilities. As well as being a wonderful form of exercise, there are many mental health and social benefits too from being out and surrounded by nature.
- Orienteering / Geocaching – These sessions are basically like giant treasure hunts in the hills and are a great way of developing navigation and map reading skills, whilst also trying to problem solve as the young people try and locate each control or geocache.
- Nature sessions – These sessions are designed to give young people an introduction to the wonderful wildlife they have on their doorstep. Learners can explore and develop a deeper understanding of their local environment whilst gaining skills, developing confidence and even help contribute to a nationwide network of scientific study by reporting their wildlife sightings. The Belfast Hills has a range of different habitats just waiting to be explored, such as rivers/ponds, woodlands, hedgerows, heathland and meadows.
- Practical conservation tasks – Young people can help conserve the natural beauty of the Belfast Hills by assisting with a range of practical conservation tasks at various sites across the hills area. Each task depends on the season and the needs of the site managers. Thorough demonstrations and training will be given for each task by experienced staff, who are also fully qualified first aiders. Tasks include tree planting, wildflower creation & maintenance, scrub removal, coppicing, litter picking etc.
- Mountain rescue simulation – young people will work together to conduct a number of problem solving and simulated mountain emergency procedures. They will receive brief instruction and training on mountain navigation, communication and survival skills before being split into teams and receiving their mission brief and carrying out the simulated rescue.
- Wild skills – young people will get the chance to learn some basic bushcraft skills including shelter building, foraging and campfire cooking.
We also have a number of other projects that groups can get involved with, such as
improving school grounds for wildlife, Salmon in the Classroom, various training courses,
and young people led projects (16 – 24years) where we support young people with their own
ideas for environmental change.
The Belfast Hills Partnership team work hard throughout the year to ensure that volunteering opportunities not only meet the needs of the environment within which they support but also the volunteers who wish to engage. The team communicate, listen and participate with the local community and volunteers to ensure that programme development is co-designed and responsive. The Partnership does have a committed team of volunteers but find the recruitment of young volunteers more challenging. Queens University Belfast have been a vital source of support, enabling the Partnership to reach a wide range of volunteers with a varied skill set. They find however, that the pressures and demands on young people’s time often restricts their ability to commit and the competing offers are sometimes more enticing and rewarding than outdoor activities.
The Partnership have been highlighting the positive impact of volunteering outdoors raising
awareness of its links with the Take 5 messages and positive health and emotional wellbeing. The skills gained and opportunity to gain accreditation through the John Muir
Award are also welcome and the ability to provide certificates for commitment via the
Millennium Volunteers programme often adds value to the experience.
The development of specific programmes with targeted marketing, for example, the
Undergraduate Environmental Skills Programme at Easter enabled members to develop key
skills whilst making a huge impact on the conservation of the local area. The Conservation
Volunteers role and Belfast Hills Society both offer flexible, rewarding, social and fun
volunteering opportunities that brings all ages together throughout the week. This enables
training organisations, school groups and families to come together to undertake key pieces
of conservation work.
The development of student led projects has built on the appetite for youth social action and
to give those enthusiastic young people with bright ideas to led and develop a project that
makes a positive difference on the Hills. Young people participating in this model gain key
project management skills whilst making a difference that they feel strongly about. Many of
these young people go on to volunteer with the Partnership or with other environmental
If you would like to find out more about youth volunteering within the Belfast Hills Partnership contact Jo, Patricia or Lisa to find out more: