The Heart of the Chilterns: Volunteers #3 Alice Dancer, River Chess Citizen Science volunteer

The Heart of the Chilterns: Volunteers #3 Alice Dancer, River Chess Citizen Science volunteer

Alice Dancer is a brand new volunteer who’s just got started with citizen science volunteering, helping to monitor the health of the River Chess chalk stream. Here, she shares what she’s been learning so far about some tiny river residents, her love of calm time immersed in nature, and how the project has kindled a new interest in geography! Her volunteering role is part of the River Chess Smarter Water Catchment project.

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What has been your role so far as a volunteer?

Well, I’ve really only just started volunteering – I first volunteered back in March (2022) when a friend who volunteered with the River Chess Association needed some extra pairs of hands clearing watercress from a stretch of the Chess where they were struggling to take flow readings. I had so much fun spending a morning standing in a river pulling up cress, just being close to nature which I love felt really special, and it feels good doing something locally to help the environment, even if it is a tiny contribution.

Anyway, I enjoyed it so much I asked how I could get involved in more volunteer work on the Chess, and that’s when I was put in touch with Professor Kate Heppell. I (and my husband) met with her to discuss the different types of volunteering we could get involved with and we’ve signed up to three: MudSpotting, which we’ve had a training session on, and a dry run looking for potential sediment outlets along part of the Chess, and now it’s just a case of waiting for the rain so we can get out there to have a proper go at using the MudSpotter method!

We’ve also just had a really interesting training session on the Modular River Survey technique, and a group of us will be getting together to have a go for the first time on a stretch of the Chess which is due to be restored soon. And then the last one we’ve signed up to is the river fly monitoring – we went out recently to shadow some experienced river fly monitors, and it was utterly fascinating to see the breadth and abundance of tiny life in the river – I really can’t wait to get more involved in all of these projects, and of course to making friends with other local volunteers!

What was your previous experience? 

I’m currently a final year PhD student in Animal Welfare Science, specifically my research is focused on animal boredom, but I’m also a zoologist, I’ve a BSc in Zoology and a MSc in Wild Animal Biology, and I worked for 4 years as a keeper at ZSL London Zoo.

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Alice Dancer out and about MudSpotting

What have you enjoyed and learnt from volunteering?

Weirdly I have enjoyed learning some geography! I was never very interested in the subject in school, but in such an applied setting, and seeing how useful this data can be has made me interested! I’ve learnt lots so far, from the different types of outlets that lead into rivers, to how rivers are moved and altered by humans, to the different species which live in them! It’s also just so good for your head to spend time being slow, and immersed in nature – I’ve got a lot of stress in my job, and I’ve really enjoyed the change of pace and calm brought on from spending time with a river.

What have been the challenges? Or what will be challenging?

I think the main challenge is making sure I’ve got the time to commit to what I’ve decided to commit to – volunteering is time consuming – but ultimately it’s a fun and worthwhile time commitment!

What tips would you give to someone thinking of volunteering but not sure yet?

I think my main tip would be to go and join some people doing some of the volunteering that you are interested in before signing up – that way you can see what’s involved and whether you’ll enjoy it, before taking the necessary training courses.

How might the volunteering influence your plans for the future?

I think volunteering has made us feel an even stronger connection to the Chilterns. Neither me or my husband are from this part of the country, so in terms of the future – I think we’ll be likely to want to stay living here for longer than we might have otherwise!