The southern shores of Lough Neagh, Oxford Island. Sorrel Lyall

Introducing Ripple NI: BTO’s community-based engagement project

Sorrel Lyall

Ripple Project Officer

Sorrel is responsible for delivering BTO’s pilot community-based nature engagement project in Northern Ireland, called Ripple NI. The Ripple NI project aims to reach out to new people to engage them in their local wildlife and introduce new, more diverse audiences to biological recording of birds and other taxa. The project seeks to promote the wellbeing and community benefits of observing, appreciating and monitoring the ecosystems on our doorsteps.


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Sorrel Lyall’s story with BTO - from young birder, ringer and Youth Advisory Panel member to BTO Project Officer - has recently taken her to Northern Ireland, to deliver our ambitious new Ripple Project. Read her journey into conservation and discover our exciting pilot engagement scheme.

I caught the birding bug aged nine, thanks to days out with my nature-loving grandparents. I’ve been birding ever since - but I wasn’t aware of conservation as a potential career until I was about 16. It was attending my first BTO Annual Conference that really opened my eyes to the world of bird conservation, and I remember coming away from every talk thinking ‘I want that job!’.

I came away from every talk at the BTO Annual Conference thinking: I want that job!

That set me on a path to studying for a degree in Ecology at Edinburgh, and to volunteering with BTO and other nature organisations. I started bird ringing in 2018, and worked spring seasons at Ottenby Bird Station in south Sweden and North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory in Orkney.

Observing migration in places like these is an experience I’d recommend to everyone - getting a snapshot of the life of a Wryneck or a Pied Flycatcher as it takes a brief stop on its epic journey between wintering and breeding grounds is pretty awe-inspiring. And nothing beats the mystery of not knowing what you might see when you wake up before sunrise to set up the ringing nets! I’ve always said that birding and ringing are the only things I’m happy to wake up at the crack of dawn for. 

Pied Flycatcher on North Ronaldsay. Sorrel Lyall 
Ringing a Starling chick. Photo by Alison Duncan

Like many birders, I’ve also had phases of being mildly obsessed with moths, dragonflies, butterflies and bees. Spotting dolphins and other cetaceans around North Ronaldsay was always exciting too. 

In 2019 I co-founded the Edinburgh University Ornithological Society, and it was leading walks and events for the society that made me realise how rewarding and enjoyable I find engagement work.

So, in 2020, I decided to volunteer on BTO’s Youth Advisory Panel, helping to develop the organisation’s youth engagement strategy. We worked to identify the barriers that prevent young people from accessing nature and opportunities to develop their skills: time, money, transport, and not knowing other young birders.

It was inspiring to be part of a movement that listens to young people and involves them in decision-making.

We devised initiatives to address these barriers, including the Equipment Donation Scheme, so young people can get their hands on second-hand optics for free, and the Youth Representative scheme, to run events on the ground.

I really enjoyed my time on the Youth Advisory Panel - it was inspiring to be part of a movement towards a conservation sector that listens to young people and involves them in decision-making.

Looking south towards the Mourne Mountains. Sorrel Lyall
Looking south towards the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. Sorrel Lyall
Ripple NI Logo

My most recent step has been to join the BTO Northern Ireland team as Project Officer.

My role involves delivering a pilot community-based nature engagement project called Ripple NI, which aims to engage people with their local wildlife. The project promotes the wellbeing and community benefits of observing, appreciating and monitoring the ecosystems on our doorsteps. 

Campaigning for greater diversity in conservation

Sorrel is an active campaigner within the environmental sector, challenging organisations to move towards greater diversity and inclusivity.

She has written several articles about campaigning, including for RareBirdALert and BirdGuides.

You can also follow Sorrel on Twitter

As well as reaching our existing audience, we really want to engage with new people, and spark their interest in nature - so a key goal of the project is to involve more people from more diverse backgrounds in biological recording across NI.

Although BTO’s focus is on bird recording, the project will deliver in-person and online events covering all forms of wildlife in collaboration with other nature organisations.  We hope this will increase participation in surveys led by BTO and other conservation organisations. Our long-term goal is to build up communities that engage regularly with their local wild places, and to create a rippling effect of people inspiring others to discover their local wildlife.

Since 2020 I’ve been campaigning for increased diversity in the conservation sector, calling on organisations to take more action to make their activities and communities more inclusive. I’m delighted that equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is at the heart of the Ripple NI project. Like other campaigners, I’ve been faced with some backlash on social media. Overall, though, there has been a positive shift towards a sector that is actively working to reduce the barriers to participation in nature activities.

I’m looking forward to working closely with a range of organisations and communities across Northern Ireland to ensure nature events cater for everyone.

The Ripple NI project is part of The Covid Recovery Programme, funded by the Department for Communities and administered by The Heritage Fund in Northern Ireland.

I have really enjoyed my first few weeks of living in Northern Ireland, particularly exploring its wildlife sites. There is a great diversity of habitats within a relatively small area, so there is a lot to discover! My highlights so far have been a ringtail (female or juvenile) Hen Harrier, Greenshank and other autumn waders, and a small portion of the 30,000+ Canadian Pale-bellied Brent Geese that winter on Strangford Lough. I’m also looking forward to developing my skills as a naturalist and learning more about the identification and surveys of a range of taxa.

One of the best things has been meeting the people working in other conservation organisations, sharing ideas and experiences, so I’m excited about the collaborative element of the Ripple Project. I’m delighted to be part of the BTO Northern Ireland team and excited for the future of the Ripple NI project.

Sorrel Lyall, 02 November 2022

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