Outdoors: Rural rescue

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Wherever you look, there is work to be done: coppicing, ditch-digging, dry-stone walling, tree-planting. Duff Hart-Davies joins the volunteers on an unpaid, but rewarding, project

Who would be brave enough to eat the Jew's ears? That was the question teasing the volunteers when they pulled off the hill on Saturday evening, carrying hatfuls of the brown, rubbery fungus which they had peeled from the bark of elder bushes during their day's work.

At the very least, the dozen young people who spent last weekend toiling on the steep southern slope of Cam Long Down, near Stroud, under the auspices of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, had a good break in the country. The weather stayed more or less dry, the site was a spectacular one, the company cheerful: everyone felt that he or she had benefited from exercise in the open air and achieved something worthwhile.

The name of the Trust is too long, and its abbreviated form - BTCV - sounds uncomfortably like the initials of some television company; but it is an admirable organisation, and unobtrusively achieves an enormous amount in the countryside.

Last weekend was typical.In charge of the party was 24-year-old Ian Devon, who got a degree in environmental science at Bradford University, spent six months in Uganda, and then found that nobody in England would give him a job because he had neither a master's degree nor two years' practical experience. His response was to become a full-time volunteer officer with BTCV, and he is now working 50 or 60 hours a week for no pay.

He it was who had inspected the work site, sharpened the tools, booked accommodation and bought food. He it was who met the party in Gloucester, drove them to their billet in the village hall at North Nibley, and cooked supper.

Each volunteer had paid pounds 20 for the privilege of putting in two days' work, and nobody seemed dismayed by the basic nature of the lodgings. There are, Ian explained, three levels of accommodation for such projects. "Luxury" means that the establishment has beds. "Standard" probably has bunks, as in a youth hostel, and in "Simple", as at North Nibley, you sleep on the floor.

Cam Long Down is a free-standing hill running out into the Berkeley vale at right angles from the main Cotswold escarpment - a long, high backbone dumped there (some say) by the Devil, in a futile attempt to dam the Severn. More prosaic commentators reckon that it was carved by retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age. Either way, it commands exhilarating views.

The weekend's project was to clear scrub that had invaded the limestone grassland of the upper slopes. By the time I joined the team on Saturday afternoon they had already felled an impressive number of elder and hawthorn bushes, and had a good fire blazing. In seconds I was equipped with gloves and a bow-saw and set to work.

If the pace was leisurely, morale was high. People pegged away with their chosen weapons - hand saws, slashers, clippers - and exchanged the odd volley of banter. They had come from far and wide: Jane from London, a second Ian from Birmingham, Tom from Bristol. Sanjida O'Connell, a television producer, also from Bristol, is already, at 26, the author of three books, two on the comparative psychology of human beings and animals, the third a novel about a researcher who goes to Ireland to study magpies.

The top of Cam Long Down belongs to Stroud District Council, but the land is managed by staff from the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and with us was John Morris, the service's local project officer. When we downed tools for a cup of tea, perching around a gas ring on precipitous turf, he explained that grazing by cattle or sheep is by far the best means of maintaining rough grassland, with its distinctive flowers and insects, and he spoke lyrically of plans to seek a lottery grant for the purchase of a "flying flock" of sheep, which would eat its way round important sites in the county.

Back at work, Ian Devon kept everyone going with a skilful mixture of instruction, encouragement and cajolery, switching people to new jobs whenever they began to look dispirited. As he described the variety of seasonal tasks that come up - coppicing, hedge-laying, dry-stone walling, tree-planting - he said admiringly, "These volunteers are more effective than a lot of paid workers. They're more meticulous. They look at a site, say, 'Right!' and really get their teeth into it."

In the evening they did just that to the Jew's ears - and it seemed a poor reward for effort expended that the result was so disappointing.

Next morning they were all still on their feet - yet everyone agreed that the gastronomic experiment had been a severe let-down. They'd done their best with butter, salt, pepper and garlic, but the fungus had resisted attack. "It just lay there in the frying-pan and looked at us," said one of them. "And in the end it tasted like old polystyrene."

Details of work projects from BTCV, 36 St Mary's Street, Wallingford, Oxon OX10 OEU (01491 839766).