The contribution of volunteer labour is worth, on average, 36 per cent of the total cost of managing Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's protected sites.
Across 59 protected sites managed by the trust, volunteers provide an estimated 3200 days of labour every year.
'That's a considerable resource that Yorkshire Wildlife Trust are already tapping into for conservation gain,' says co-author Dr Zoe Davies, who is now at the University of Kent but did this work while at the University of Sheffield. 'It's really enlightening and exciting to see that people are engaging that much in conservation in their local communities.'
Managing protected sites is expensive, often more so than acquiring them in the first place. This poses a problem for land trusts like Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, as funding for conservation is limited. Drawing on the help of volunteers is one way such organisations can save money on site management. This new research shows how significant their contribution really is.
Because of the important role played by volunteers, the researchers wanted to help land trusts answer two important questions: Will my site attract volunteer labour? And how should we allocate resources among our protected areas? To do this, they gathered information about how many people volunteer on each of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's protected sites, and related these numbers to information about the sites and the surrounding areas.
Their results showed that protected sites near densely populated areas such as towns and cities attracted more volunteers. This came as no surprise, since volunteers can more easily get to sites near their homes. They are also more likely to spend time working on larger sites and those that have been protected for longer, perhaps because these sites are better known or more valued by their local communities.
On the other hand, there appears to be no link between social deprivation and numbers of volunteers. This surprised the researchers, who expected factors such as income to affect people's willingness to work for free. There was also no link between number of volunteers and the geography of the sites, for example their steepness.
This research provides important information for land trusts considering acquiring new protected sites, because of the considerable financial benefits of attracting volunteers. 'When you acquire a site, whether you're buying it or being given it, you've got to think long-term about how you're going to manage it on a relatively small income,' says Davies. 'So if you've got a site that you know is likely to attract volunteer labour, you're more likely to take it instead of another site that might be equally good in terms of biodiversity value, but might not attract volunteers.'
However, the benefits of volunteering are not restricted to financial gains for land trusts. 'Interacting with their environment has a positive effect on people,' says Davies. 'It's good for health and wellbeing, and volunteers develop a better understanding of conservation issues, which makes them more likely to contribute to conservation in the future.'
To complete the picture, the results of this study need to be compared with information about volunteering contributions in other conservation organisations, to see if the reported trends are consistent across the UK.
The research is published in PLoS One.
Explore further: New tool identifies high-priority dams for fish survival
More information: Armsworth, P. et al. (2013) Opportunities for Cost-Sharing in Conservation: Variation in Volunteering Effort across Protected Areas. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55395. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055395