Michelle’s apprentice success story!

When I first arrived I knew nothing!  Or at least I felt like I didn’t.  It was something completely new to me and I wasn’t sure if I would make the grade.  However, that soon became irrelevant and unimportant.

Changing careers can be a daunting prospect as you can never be totally sure whether it’s something you’ll be good at or even like.  I somehow knew though that my decision to change from working in an office doing admin to working as an apprentice for an environmental conservation charity would be the best professional decision I would ever make.

From sitting at a desk, where the only amount of  lifting and carrying I did was to pick up a telephone/biscuit, to working in the countryside where lifting things (very heavy things!) became the norm, was a big change but as I’m always up for a challenge, I persevered.  What could be better than exploring Lancashire’s green hills and getting fit at the same time?

I have been doing a horticulture apprenticeship at Ribble Rivers Trust since October 2017 where I’ve been able to get involved in a wide range of activities, for example fitting eel tiles on a fish pass, to allow eels to migrate upstream (see picture).  Having never used a chisel and hammer (seriously) before, this was a first for me, and only on my second day!  I was going in head first.

Next on the agenda, was planting trees.  And oh boy, was there a lot!   The first site had over 7000 trees and it was the first step I took into learning tree identification.  I remember having a conversation with a friend a few months earlier about how I wished I could identify trees just by looking at their leaves; well now I’m well on my way to doing just that with native trees from the North West of England.

Not long into my apprenticeship I was given the opportunity to lead on activities with volunteers.  My first task was to organise Balsam Bashing sessions during the summer months.  Himalayan Balsam is an invasive and non-native plant that contributes to riverbank erosion and out-competes our native flora, hence why we encourage pulling it out.  On my first day I was nervous to lead my own volunteer day, however my nerves soon dissipated when I met the volunteers who came.  I’m proud to say they are still volunteering with us today, so I must have made a good impression. Or perhaps it was the ground coffee I put in their cups instead of instant and they couldn’t resist teasing me about it again!

My skills were developing quickly, and I  was feeling more confident carrying out practical tasks. During the glorious summer of 2018, I spent most of it outdoors in the sunshine… I sense a bit of envy?  Hmm you should be.  I helped to construct a post and rail fence and made a hurdle to fit between the fence posts (see pictures).

Other activities I was involved in were creating woodland footpaths, hosting community litter picking sessions and creating leaky dams to help slow the flow of water downstream.   Aside from the practical learning, these types of activities helped to explain the importance of caring for our environment and making it a safer, cleaner and more enjoyable place to be in for wildlife and people.

During my apprenticeship I received qualifications in how to apply pesticides using a knapsack, and training I was desperately keen on doing was using a chainsaw, so I gained a qualification in maintenance and cross cutting.  These were things I could never have imagined doing, even a year before the start of my apprenticeship.  Another milestone I reached recently was reversing the utility terrain vehicle onto its trailer (not the easiest of tasks), and it’s something I have struggled to do without assistance in the past, but I managed it once and for all.

I was able to go on a placement to work in the grounds of Whalley Abbey with the Head Gardener (see picture).  Whilst there, I did a variety of tasks that ranged from planting up flower beds, to taking cuttings, to mowing and scarifying lawns.  I liked finding out what plants worked well together, on what aspect and in which soil type.  Having had both experience in horticulture and conservation, I feel I have been able to learn more and gain a wider range of practical experience in both areas which are closely linked.

Now, as I approach the end of my apprenticeship, I have made another leap and will be venturing into the world of amenity horticulture and working alongside other gardeners in a historic garden setting.  For me, working in a garden surrounded by plants is where my passion is and I’m excited to see where it will take me.

Working at Ribble Rivers Trust has meant that I have grown in confidence in my own abilities to do practical tasks but also notably my family have regularly commented on how I seem a much happier person, because I am doing something that I enjoy.  The apprenticeship has had its challenges, but I think it has only proven to me how determined I am to persevere and make sure I finish whatever task I started.  It has been a fantastic opportunity to learn new skills and meet like-minded people and I will take away so many fond memories, even of the singing and awful jokes!