Conservation charities have hit back at a report that claims young people who do voluntary work on environmental projects see their work as "slave labour".
The report, Environmental Skills and Knowledge for Sustainable Rural Communities: Problems and Prospects for the Inclusion of Young People, concluded that many environmental charities relied on "ready made" communities of young people who were "mandated" to volunteer by schools and local youth services.
Many projects were dominated by "grunt work" such as digging holes, building footpaths and clearing scrub. One young person involved in a group discussion described the work as "slave labour", according to the report, which surveyed 116 environmental groups and 68 volunteers aged between 14 and 25.
It also claimed that young volunteers on such projects were dissatisfied with the lack of choice they were given about their work and "clueless" about the broader intentions of conservation.
A spokeswoman for conservation charity BTCV said 45 per cent of its volunteers were aged 25 and under. She added: "There is plenty of research, including our own, which concludes that those who do get involved find the experience engaging and worthwhile.
"As unemployment rises and job opportunities dwindle, we've seen a rise in the number of people enquiring about volunteering opportunities."
Rosslyn Colderley, head of development at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, said she disagreed with the report's conclusions.
"We recruit young people through schools, but it is their choice to volunteer," she said. "We find they enjoy hands-on, practical conservation work and, after taking part in taster sessions, want to get more involved," she said.
The report, conducted by the University of Exeter and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, also said only 5 per cent of environmental volunteering groups allowed young people to contribute to the wider organisation of their work.
It said it was "rare for young people to see themselves as getting the opportunity to actively define what takes place and cultivate other key skills in the process".