Volunteers are the lifeblood of the UK's National Parks. The incredible landscapes you experience in Britain's breathing spaces are protected and maintained by them. The unique and diverse communities you encounter are enriched by them.
We are incredibly thankful for the thousands upon thousands of hours our volunteers put into making the UK National Parks what they are, and each year we hold the Volunteer Awards as a means of saying "thank you."
The awards are presented in four categories to individuals, projects, and groups that have gone above and beyond the expectations of volunteers.
2015's list of nominees was unparalleled in quality, sparking some difficult deliberation amongst the judges. In the words of one our judges, Helen Steer: "All [the nominees] must be commended for exceptional service to our national parks and our country's wild spaces. To know they are doing this as volunteers is especially awe-inspiring; they are credits to their families, communities and most of all to themselves."
Frances Bland has been volunteering for Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority for more than a decade. Perhaps more than most, she can claim to know the park inside and out, having walked some 172 miles of footpath in the national park as part of an Ease of Use Survey, for which she took on sole responsibility.
A strong proponent of the benefits of volunteering, Frances credits her service for the national parks with helping her overcome some difficult personal circumstances and build the confidence to regularly interact with others. Additionally, she says the "free from worries" nature of the Yorkshire Dales has been of benefit to both her and her husband.
"Frances is without a doubt a champion of volunteering," said National Parks UK Director Kathryn Cook, who served as one of this year's judges. "Her commitment, quality of work and range of volunteering activities sets her above. She is completely, passionately and whole-heartedly involved with giving something back to the national park.
"Frances is an amazing example of what a volunteer, working as an individual or as part of a team, can achieve. She is a shining example of how volunteers can work alongside staff and other volunteers to benefit a national park – she is well and truly part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park team."
The judges were so impressed with this year's candidates that they have also extended special commendation to the efforts of both Tony Carpenter and Tricia Brown.
Tony has been an inexhaustible volunteer for New Forest National Park. He has proved to be an invaluable asset in a number of the New Forest's archaeological projects.
Tricia has served as a voluntary ranger for Lake District National Park since 2002. Instrumental in identifying routes for the Disabled Ramblers, she has also played an important role in countless other projects.
An active part of the Campaign for National Parks' Mosaic project, Karl Epps has served as an inspiration to his fellow volunteers in New Forest National Park. A wheelchair user, he has played an important role in ensuring national park events are more inclusive.
Karl has served as a volunteer for more than two years and has done a variety of jobs, from helping to maintain gardens, to assisting in office work, to interacting with the general public.
Helen Steer served as one of the judges for this year's awards. Director of Explorer HQ, she has a wealth of experience in helping to introduce young people to the benefits of being in natural places. Helen said she was inspired by Karl's dedication to volunteering.
"He is clearly a passionate, committed advocate for our wild spaces," Helen said. "It is especially inspiring to know he is out there talking about the huge impact nature can have on an individual's health and wellbeing. In addition, Karl's focus on inclusion and accessibility will have a tangible effect for many other people in his own area and can serve as an excellent example for other wild spaces."
Described as a "true champion" by his fellow volunteers, Karl credits volunteering with helping him to grow as an individual and overcome personal reservations he had held as a result of his physical challenges.
The judges were equally impressed by the dedication displayed by nominees Ollie Barnett and Adam Philip-Philips.
Ollie serves as a Mosaic volunteer in Exmoor National Park, where he has been an inspiration to other young people, sharing with them the benefits of the national park and what it has to offer.
Adam is also a Mosaic volunteer, having put in more than 100 hours of service in Lake District National Park. Sometimes having to travel more than two hours on public transportation to attend events, Adam has become a strong advocate of volunteering and its positive effects.
The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority Youth Rangers are a unique and inspiring group of 16-25 year olds serving as an example of just how bright future generations can be.
Initially formed three years ago, the PCNPA Youth Rangers currently consists of nine members, three of which have been with the group since its inception. Most of these young men and women face or have faced some level of challenge (be it a learning disability or financial disadvantage) during their time as members of the group – challenges that, in some cases, have prevented them from taking part in certain other youth-focused activities, such as the Duke of Edinburgh award.
That's not to say, however, that these young people are any less ambitious or inspiring. Last year, eight members of the group achieved the John Muir Explorer Award and all of the members have served as exemplary ambassadors for Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.
Most of the Youth Rangers have represented the national park authority at public events such as the Pembrokeshire Fish Week Festival Opening Day or the Really Wild Festival, where they have interacted with the public, explained their work as Youth Rangers and the contribution they have made to the national park, as well as many benefits they have received personally. Attendance levels are always high irrespective of the weather conditions, and spirits equally so despite some quite challenging tasks and weather.
The Discover Llangorse and Bwlch Alliance was formed when two communities within the boundaries of Brecon Beacons National Park decided to band together to develop ways of both encouraging visitors, as well as educating those visitors on how best to enjoy and help protect the area. Since then, the group has achieved a number of things, including developing a 12-mile walking route that links the two communities, and organising stargazing evenings that capitalise on the Brecon Beacons' Dark Skies status.
The Fit For Work scheme is a project aimed at encouraging those facing sometimes "chaotic" life circumstances to engage in a variety of practical projects within Peak District National Park and work toward earning an NVQ in countryside management. Targeted at individuals who might not normally engage with a national park, the Fit For Work project seeks to foster a greater connection to and understanding of the unique qualities of the national park.
Popular television presenter and active supporter of the outdoors Julia Bradbury served as one of the judges for this year's awards and said she was drawn to the Fit For Work project because it seeks to broaden the reach and influence that a national park can have.
"This project engages in the most practical and worthwhile way with people who really need and will really benefit from outdoor activities and 'landscape therapy,'" said Bradbury. "Without this help and guidance the target group coming from a mainly urban background are unlikely to explore the delights of the Peak District. Remember that the Peak District – the first National Park – was created as the 'lung' and catchment for three great northern conurbations. This project echoes the history of the Peak perfectly. Well done!"
Run by Friends of the Lake District, Fell Care Days are mass volunteer events aimed at encouraging large groups of people to engage with natural spaces. They focus on reconnecting people with the landscape by raising awareness of the immense value of uplands
Recipients of the group and project awards will receive £1,000 bursaries to help facilitate future volunteering activity. The winning individual and young person will each receive his or her choice of footwear from outdoor specialist and UK National Parks brand partner Merrell.
The full list of Volunteer Awards nominees can be found on the 2015 UK National Parks Volunteer Awards nominees page. Equally, the short list of candidates from which this year's winners were chosen can be found on the 2015 Short List page.
National Parks UK would like to extend a special thank you to judges Julia Bradbury and Helen Steer for taking part in this year's awards. You can find out more about Julia's outdoor work at: www.theoutdoorguide.co.uk And you can learn more about Helen's organisation by visiting: www.missionexplore.net
If you have skills and enthusiasm (or the just the willingness to get stuck in!) and you've been inspired to volunteer you'll find information on how to go about joining our other volunteers here