Dr Kate Lewthwaite, Citizen Science Manager at the Woodland Trust, reflects on the role of the volunteer, the training opportunities and their vital to the Observatree project.

I have been involved in Observatree from the very beginning. I recall expressing to my coworkers that I had doubts about whether this project was appropriate for volunteers, as they might become discouraged when it came to learning about and documenting tree pests. I am delighted that I was completely wrong. What we have found is that involving volunteers gives them agency in a subject they were highly concerned about but previously had no ability to act upon.

In fact, volunteering with Observatree is now highly sought after. We normally have quite an extensive waiting list, with prospective volunteers contacting us proactively through the year. Some years all our recruitment is just from the waiting list.

Our aim is to keep a core network of 200 active volunteers, with a good geographical spread across the UK, who are intensively supported and trained by project staff.

Our research has shown that once trained, our experienced volunteers possess similar capability to professionals when it comes to identifying some of the key pests and diseases of the project, so they can make an enormous difference as “eyes on the ground”. This is due to our extensive training programme, consisting of face-to-face training days, webinars, and online resources. Volunteers connect with, and learn from, tree health experts from across the UK. The only thing we ask, is that volunteers have existing ecological knowledge including good skills in broadleaf, and ideally conifer, tree identification. This is significant because we've found that expecting a new volunteer to simultaneously handle tree identification and pest and disease identification is too significant a challenge, as both are substantial subjects.

Learning together

Face to face gatherings have always been a central part of Observatree with all volunteers offered at least one such session in their region each year. Since the pandemic, we’ve boosted our training calendar with a comprehensive webinar programme. For example, a PowerPoint explaining signs and symptoms of tree pests or how to submit a record via Tree Alert is just as efficiently delivered via a webinar. The Observatree website also has a host of training videos to access. And ongoing questions can be answered in our active online forum supported by professionals and our more experienced volunteers.

This means that the face-to-face training days can have a stronger focus on practical skills with hands-on experience in practising good biosecurity, learning how to survey a tree, or taking samples. This also gives more time outside to see pests and diseases in the field.  As well as annual training days we have also aimed to offer mentoring days in the autumn. These have more of a focus on networking with other volunteers, project staff and learning about how the partner organisations function. For example, tours of laboratories at Forest Research and Fera Science where the tree samples are processed.

Training is very much a co-created exercise, with volunteer feedback always used to improve online and face to face sessions for the next year and to help determine topics to be covered.

Part of the Observatree family

Some of our amazing volunteers like Stephen, our London Lead Volunteer, have been with us since the very beginning. But it is also great to see some new faces, 100 new volunteers joined us in 2022!

I have some very happy memories of attending training and mentoring days, right through the ten year period of Observatree and I always enjoy catching up with the long-term, as well as new, volunteers.  We have faced the normal logistical challenges of snow days, power cuts and suddenly closed venues but also some truly memorable moments that I will never forget like my first finding of elm zig zag sawfly and oak processionary moth. This always creates a sense of mixed emotions as one can imagine but at least we are sharing these with a group of like-minded individuals.

It is embarrassing to recount how many times I have had training in conifer identification but I am not sure how well it has stuck as unlike the volunteers I don’t get much time in the field - as with all learning it is definitely a case of use it or lose it!

In Spring 2024, we’ll be looking for new volunteers in Wales and Northern England. If you are interested in joining us and live in these areas, please email observatree@woodlandtrust.org.uk to be put on our waiting list.


Dr Kate Lewthwaite,

Citizen Science Manager at the Woodland Trust.