Volunteering – let’s get physical

Alan first became an environmental volunteer over thirty years ago. He is currently a member of the Glasgow midweek group run by The Conservation Volunteers (TCV). His story stretches back to 1984.

Alan beside the trusty TCV van.

Alan beside the trusty TCV van.

“I started volunteering way back, quite a long time ago with BTCV as it was called in the past. I saw a small advert in the library – this was back in 1984! I thought I’d give them a call and I started doing a wee bit of volunteering in the summer that year, and did that for about 18 months. Eventually I moved on to a few other things, but I’ve still been doing a wee bit on and off over the years with BTCV/TCV. I had their contact details to get back in touch and I’ve found it very therapeutic.

There are various benefits. You’ve got the health benefit of being out in the open and fresh air. There are the benefits of doing physical graft – you feel good at the end of the day. There’s the social side of it as well, getting to know people and you get a buzz from that – getting to know people gradually when coming out on a regular basis. And you get a wee bit of knowledge about things, and learning different skills as well – it’s very good. And you appreciate your environment a bit more.

Over the years I’ve been involved in quite a wide range of things from drystane dyking to planting trees and various types of plants. We were down in Yoker recently planting apple trees, which was good.

 Another good thing is the structure it gives you for your week. You get up in the morning and go out and you’ve got a routine to your day which is quite important. I like the physical side of things. Recently we were making a path taking wheelbarrows back and forwards. You’re doing quite a physical day but I like the feel of that – at the end of the day you feel as if you’ve had a workout just like being in a gym, only you’re out in the open so you’re getting more benefits.  I was using the big machine ( ) to flatten the path surface so you’re learning how to use different tools, so that’s good as well. And we’re having a wee laugh at the same time. So you’ve got the social activity and over lunch you can get to know people a wee bit.

 I’ve learned to appreciate the environment. One thing I don’t like to see when you’re out sometimes at places there are people who just drop rubbish and litter. People with a wee bit more trouble could make the environment much nicer looking. I’ve been involved in litter picking but sometimes you feel someone’s coming behind you putting it all back down again!

 If someone’s interested in being outdoors, doing something worthwhile and a bit physical at times – I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. I’m usually quite enthusiastic speaking to people about what I’m doing when they ask. So, I would certainly recommend it, as a benefit mentally and physically

 Mentally, you’ve got structure to your day. You’re socialising as well as learning skills – I think that’s important. It’s had positive benefits for me. I like the people as well – they’re all friendly including Lauren the leader and the volunteers. It’s a positive experience that I would recommend. It gives you motivation and you’re learning things. Basically, I’m glad I came out volunteering again and I’m looking forward to carrying on!”


The TCV Glasgow volunteers group is organised by Lauren Lochrie, Senior Project Officer: lauren.lochrie@tcv.org.uk or 0141 552 5294.

Find out more on the TCV Scotland website @ https://www.tcv.org.uk/scotland

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Shaping a career

“As you volunteer, not only do you learn key skills but you learn about the site you are maintaining; it’s a true sense of custodianship.” Kirsten Brewster writes about her diverse experience of volunteering, and how it has shaped her career within the environmental sector. 

Mute Swan on Loch of Kinnordy RSPB reserve. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Mute Swan on Loch of Kinnordy RSPB reserve where Kirsten volunteered. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

What inspired you to pursue volunteering?

After completing my undergraduate degree in Zoology and Masters in Conservation and Sustainability, I quickly realised jobs within the environmental sector are incredibly competitive. I knew that the added experience of volunteering could help boost my CV, and provide a range of really useful skills and experience.

Gives us an overview of what volunteering you have done and what it involved

After I graduated, I took up a volunteering opportunity with the RSPB as a reserve volunteer at Kinnordy Loch (Kirriemuir), for one full day a week.  I also took on a similar practical reserve role at Tentsmuir NNR.

In November 2016, alongside my other volunteering, I took on a voluntary internship with the Scottish Wild Beaver Group (Perthshire), for one to two days a week. During this time I worked night shifts in a supermarket to allow myself the time to volunteer during the day.

My position with RSPB lasted approximately six months. The purpose of the role was to carry out the practical reserve management tasks including vegetation management, water level monitoring, wetland bird surveys, hide checks and footpath maintenance.

RSPB were my first choice because of the availability and frequency of their opportunities. I soon discovered other opportunities available within the organisation; one which appealed to me was community engagement. With no experience in this field, I realised the importance of communicating with the public about conservation work being done. I gained the confidence to speak to a range of audiences, and build the skills necessary in a variety of scenarios. It was also exciting to engage audiences’ interests and knowledge and explore contentious matters. I followed this interest to a voluntary role with the RSPB Celebrating Nature with Schools project as an educational assistant.

A day spent outdoors playing games and watching as young people become inspired by the natural world is hard to beat!

A day spent outdoors playing games and watching as young people become inspired by the natural world is hard to beat!

The internship role was extremely beneficial because I gained an invaluable knowledge of the entire charity and its operations. My responsibilities were varied, including managing the social media accounts – posting interesting and relevant content; planning public events and talks; organising the trustee meetings and AGM; taking minutes; developing funding applications and devising an educational programme for primary and secondary education.

The skills that I have gained are as varied as the role themselves; from practical outdoor skills such as squirrel surveys and fencing to dealing with invoices, membership queries and writing parliamentary questions. I have also developed my skills in writing and using online media by working on a wildlife blog with my partner – a project like this has allowed us to relay our interest in conservation to others and justify our weekends spent looking for various wildlife!

How has volunteering helped you to enter the environmental sector of work?

Volunteering has given me the opportunity to understand just how many different routes there are into an environmental career as well as trying my hand at a few. The benefit is that I am quite open-minded about future roles but I definitely think I value a role where there is the opportunity to get outside and appreciate nature with others.

My current role is a Graduate Placement with SNH working on the project Engaging farmers in biodiversity in the Rural Resources Unit. One of the aspects I enjoy about this role is visiting farms and talking about nature. Ultimately, achieving nature conservation more effectively requires report writing and advising policy so I am passionate about translating my experience into recommendations at a higher level. I feel that my volunteering experience was integral in giving me the confidence and knowledge for both the interview and to carry out the work that I have been doing over the last six months.

Kirsten visiting young farmers at Lynbreck Croft. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Kirsten visiting young farmers at Lynbreck Croft. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Reflecting on your volunteering experiences…

I was surprised to think back and realise that my favourite aspect of volunteering was the time that I got to spend outdoors particularly in the company of others. My voluntary role as an educational assistant encompassed both these aspects by enthusing primary school children about the natural world through the East Scotland Sea Eagle population. A day spent outdoors playing games and watching as young people become inspired by the natural world is hard to beat!

How has volunteering shaped your appreciation for nature?

When you volunteer in a place like a nature reserve you develop a sense of belonging. For example, if I visited Tentsmuir NNR only once I would enjoy my experience of that place. However, if I visited the NNR regularly I would develop an affection for the area and notice changes over the seasons.

Tentsmuir NNR. © Steven Sinclair/SNH

Tentsmuir NNR. ©Steven Sinclair/SNH

By actually looking after the place, you develop a deeper understanding and knowledge of it that surpasses appreciation. As a volunteer, not only do you learn key skills but you also learn about the site you are maintaining; it’s a true sense of custodianship.

If you like a place or want to know more you should volunteer there because carrying out practical work at a site builds a new relationship between people and place.

Finally, what advice would you give to anyone wishing to volunteer in the environment?

My advice for younger people interested in the environment and volunteering would be to just get out there! Don’t feel that you have to wait until you have more knowledge or skills to take part, volunteering is all about learning. There are so many people in this sector who are delighted to mentor volunteers in their field and if you don’t enjoy a particular aspect, try something else until you find what you are passionate about. Conservationjobs.co.uk is a great place to find opportunities, as is Facebook in my experience.

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Katie O’Neill – Gartnavel volunteer

The Gartnavel Gardening Group is run by The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) within the grounds of Gartnavel Hospital in Glasgow, and is open to former patients and members of the local community.  Using organic principles the group undertakes grow-your-own, ornamental and wildlife gardening.  Encouraging wildlife is a top priority, so plant selections are made with wildlife in mind, particularly pollinators and birds. Katie O’Neill reflects on what volunteers achieve.

Katie working in the Gartnavel garden.

Katie working in the Gartnavel garden.

The group has created several wildlife features including a bird feeding bed filled with seed producing plants, plus a bug hotel, bird boxes and dead hedge, and this year they hope to add a small wildlife pond. The group’s volunteers are also involved in the management of two wildflower meadows created as part of the greenspace infrastructure works at the hospital.

 Katie O’Neill sees the positive benefits:

“We are quite a varied group demographically and with different employment backgrounds, but we’re actually all quite like-minded – very welcoming and tolerant. I wouldn’t keep coming back if it wasn’t for the fact that people are so tolerant and considerate.

We get evidence that the things we do can be positive – there’s a positive outcome to it. I remember coming here in the beginning thinking that I’m going to be planting seeds and I thought there’s no way they are going to grow!  But every week there’s something you see that’s different and you know you’ve made an impact and you’ve had a part to play in it. That really gives me a lot of hope.

Thinking about this past year – for me the garden’s really been the ignition for me getting back to my life. Learning little things in the garden has translated into me realising that I can learn anything that I put my mind to.  I’m learning new skills. It’s so empowering and confidence building. It’s also made me realise that if further down the line I want to go back to my job – than maybe I can.”

Another member of the group commented that involvement in the garden could be life changing, to which Katie replied: “It has been!”  

The Gartnavel Gardening Group is funded by the Green Exercise Partnership (SNH, NHS Scotland and Forestry Commission Scotland), in conjunction with Art in the Gart.  For further information contact Bryony Whyte, Green Activity Project Officer: bryony.white@tcv.org.uk  or 07977 406900.


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Reconciling renewable energy sources with their environmental impact

Nina Turner, one of our planning advisors, writes about her experience attending a seminar run by the Greek Ministry for Environment, Energy and Climate Change, Good practices for reconciling wind energy development and biodiversity conservation.

Wind turbine. © Caroline Stanton/SNH

Wind turbine. © Caroline Stanton/SNH

The Greek Ministry for Environment, Energy and Climate Change recently hosted a seminar called Good practices for reconciling wind energy development and biodiversity conservation. The Ministry brought together Greek stakeholders, from ornithologists to developers and local government, to learn about biodiversity and spatial planning for wind farms.

We were invited to attend the conference to share our considerable experience and good practice. This was an opportunity to show how we are looking after and improving nature and provide leadership in Europe on environmental issues.  It was great to see colleagues from other organisations, including the World Wide Fund for Nature, RSPB, and Bird Watch Ireland, come together to support the Greek Ministry’s goal of developing wind farms whilst considering the environmental impacts.

I was asked to share SNH’s insights on strategic planning of onshore wind energy projects of Scotland, but also learned a lot about some of the challenges Greece is facing as it expands investment in wind energy. For example, despite the push to reduce Greek reliance on coal as a source of energy, fewer than 4% of proposed onshore wind farms are installed. This is probably because installing a wind farm requires approval from multiple departments, a complicated process which can take up to eight years!

A more critical issue for me with regard to wind farms is considering the impact they have on the environment and local wildlife. This is uniquely challenging in Greece because the environment Ministry is very small and has little ecological experience; similarly local governments don’t have this expertise, and there is no independent environmental organisation in Greece to provide impartial expert advice.

This is a real concern in northern Greece in particular, where the areas with strong winds – that are more likely to be used as a wind farm – are Natura sites for rare and vulnerable vulture and eagle species. Renewable energy sources such as wind farms are alternatives to fossil fuel energy sources that create greenhouse gases. As we reduce reliance on fossil fuels, we can further tackle the effects of climate change on people and nature – but the challenge is to do this whilst also protecting species at risk. For example, taking into account existing and planned wind turbines, the predicted collision risk in Greece is 10 vultures per year. With fewer than 100 black and Egyptian vultures in the country, this is a significant risk to the population. This is why Greek authorities are keen to speak to other countries about careful siting and design: to learn how to achieve this balance of wind farm development and protection of conservation interests.

Egyptian vultures. © putneymark, Creative Commons

Egyptian vultures. © putneymark, Creative Commons

Greek authorities are working hard to bring relevant stakeholders together and meet their renewable energy targets but recognise the need to safeguard vulnerable species. We discussed ways to mitigate the risks to wildlife, including excluding wind farms from sensitive bird areas, slowing down turbines in migratory paths during migration season, and emitting noise as a deterrent to birds flying near turbines.

While much of the seminar focused on birds, other issues emerged such as construction methods and consideration of landscape impacts. Environmental Impact Assessment also seems to take place later in the process than in other countries, with limited survey work done to inform the decisions. Overall, it was a fascinating opportunity to explore some of the challenges other countries face when planning for wind farms.

It was great to see SNH’s reputation as a credible, independent science-based organisation is recognised internationally. We believe Scottish nature and landscapes are valuable, and it’s good to see other countries agree.


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Creative Commons images are used under license.

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Growing up at St Cyrus NNR

Simon Ritchie began volunteering at St Cyrus NNR when he was just 16 years old. He shares his experience of growing up on the reserve, and how it has shaped him as an individual.

St Cyrus NNR is a particularly special site with a wide variety of habitats. © Steven Sinclair/SNH

St Cyrus NNR is a particularly special site with a wide variety of habitats. © Steven Sinclair/SNH

Tell us about your volunteering experience at St Cyrus NNR?

I first started volunteering with my grandad at St Cyrus when I was in 5th year at High School, in 2012. He was a local from St Cyrus and was also interested in wildlife and the outdoors. I began by helping Therese Alampo, the Reserve Manager, with beach cleans and other jobs including reserve maintenance. I had always been interested in wildlife as a kid, but as I became older, the interest increased.

Simon Ritchie at the St Cyrus NNR reserve office, ready for a day’s work on the reserve. (winter 2015/16). © Simon Ritchie/SNH

Simon Ritchie at the St Cyrus NNR reserve office, ready for a day’s work on the reserve. (winter 2015/16). © Simon Ritchie/SNH

Right away I started to learn more about birds with Therese encouraging me to participate in bird counts on the reserve. This led to regular counts from the bird hide, and then as my knowledge and identification skills grew I got involved with more counts and surveys. I have now completed cliff nesting and shoreline bird surveys and mapped ground nesting bird territories.

I soon began to pay more attention to all the wildlife around me. I started helping Therese and the team with the botanical surveying on site. With an abundance of botanical species well as insects and mosses, St Cyrus was the perfect place to learn. There is a fantastically beautiful dune grassland, which is awash with species, the different colours are phenomenal. We undertook surveys of maiden pink, early purple orchid, Nottingham catchfly and northern marsh orchid in the summer months.

Clustered Bellflower, St Cyrus NNR. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Clustered Bellflower, St Cyrus NNR. © Lorne Gill/SNH

I also very much enjoyed the practical aspects of volunteering such as path building, signage and infrastructure repairs, beach cleans and habitat management. I helped run events, engaging with the public, completing visitor surveys and communicating with different recreational users. Helping to lead educational groups is something that I have found rewarding and all of these activities help to increase communication skills.

Even though I am busy studying for my degree I am still a regular volunteer at St Cyrus and learning new things, even six years later!

What skills have you have gained from volunteering at St Cyrus?

Over the years I have expanded my knowledge of wildlife identification (birds, plants, grasses, mammals etc.); communication skills (working with the public, helping with events); practical skills (working with tools/machinery, understanding the management of habitats) and life skills (time management, achieving goals). It has helped pave the way for my conservation career.

What do you consider the most enjoyable aspect of volunteering to be?

Due to my keen interest in wildlife and ecology, I must say I particularly enjoy the ornithological and botanical surveying. I equally enjoy seeing the daily results of the practical habitat management side of things, which in conservation is a rare thing – it can often take many years for wildlife conservation goals to visibly appear.

What is it like being a part of a group of volunteers on the reserve?

The team at St Cyrus NNR is amazing, close and enthusiastic. We all have different skills and experiences to draw upon. I owe a lot of my knowledge to Therese and Kim who were very helpful, patient and encouraging. Volunteers like Michael and Niall helped me to further my understanding of wildlife, and took me on as a young newbie to the reserve! I have made great friends with other volunteers and staff, developed many skills and great memories.

How have your career/life aspirations been influenced by the volunteering you’ve done?

As a result of the skills I gained at St Cyrus I was given a part-time job with Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) at Montrose Basin as a teacher/naturalist. This involved leading young educational groups and teaching them about nature and wildlife. This led to a position as the Seasonal Visitor Centre Assistant there. I was then employed by SNH on a Student Placement in 2015/2016 as an apprentice ranger. For 12 months I worked full time on NNRs around Aberdeenshire helping run the reserves with the rangers. I then worked for SWT through the Winter/Spring of 2017 as a Swan Management Project Assistant. None of this would have been achieved if it was not for experience, skills and contacts I gained during my time volunteering.

Simon took some time in the summer 2017 to work on the Isle of May National Nature Reserve. © Simon Ritchie/SNH

Simon took some time in the summer 2017 to work on the Isle of May National Nature Reserve. © Simon Ritchie/SNH

My interests have also flourished since 2012. I am now a very keen birder and naturalist and into my identification of different species. I have been a trainee bird ringer for a few years. I have also partaken in many different ecological surveys and spent time in amazing places in Scotland including recently volunteering on the Isle of May for two months working with seabirds and visitors.

Volunteering has definitely helped with my Studies too. I have moved from an NC course in Countryside management to degree level, and hope to complete my BSc in the coming year and maybe progress on to my honours year. Afterwards I would like to start working as a ranger on a nature reserve and, one day, manage my own reserve, that would be the dream!

Do you have any advice for anyone hoping to volunteer on an NNR?

Go for it, get stuck in! It is absolutely invaluable experience. Not only do you learn so many different things, but being out in nature is good for you both physically and mentally. Volunteering can be flexible and work around your schedule. Anytime is a good time to start.

Find out more about volunteering on an NNR here.

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Inspiring and educating about the natural world

Steven Sinclair is our Year of Young People 2018 Graduate Placement. He is working on engaging young people with nature, and is involved with National Nature Reserve communications. He tells us about his volunteering experience.

Steven visiting St Cyrus NNR.

Steven visiting St Cyrus NNR.

Tell us a bit about your volunteering experience?

I graduated in June 2011 from my undergraduate degree in Geography at the University of Dundee. Two months before graduating, I took on a voluntary position with Tayside Biodiversity Partnership (TBP), based in Perth. I was responsible for researching and producing a biodiversity education guide for primary school teaching. I very quickly recognised the merit of bringing many fragmented resources together, and expanded the audience to include nursery, secondary, and further education, as well as businesses and parents. The position was intended to last one month – it lasted three years!

Three years later I took on a voluntary position with SAGE Publications, setting up and managing the Twitter feed for The Holocene academic journal. I was responsible for sourcing, creating and sharing content about climate change research, and wider geoscience subjects. I monitored digital engagement, and provided reports for the Annual Board Meeting. The Twitter page (@HoloceneJ) audience included academic institutions, environmental/research organisations, teachers, university and PhD students and those with a passion for the environment. That position lasted for one year and seven months.

Steven set up the Twitter feed for The Holocene academic journal.

Steven set up the Twitter feed for The Holocene academic journal.

What inspired you to pursue volunteering?

I studied Geography at university – an incredibly broad subject. Due to a downturn in the economy at the time I graduated, jobs were limited and very competitive. With next to no relevant work experience, I realised securing a job would be very difficult.

So I pursued voluntary positions shortly before I graduated as a way of gaining relevant environmental sector experience and to bulk out the work experience on my CV. The volunteering was also very useful for networking and developing a base of contacts within various organisations.

What skills have you gained from volunteering?

TBP was fantastic – my co-ordinator recognised my ability for self-management and organisation and trusted me to work independently. I had the opportunity to further hone my editorial and research skills gained during my studies, I attended formal Working Group progress meetings, and liaised with over 50 environmental organisations about educational resources.

My position with SAGE Publications was a direct result of a new-found interest in social media engagement, which I explored during my Master’s thesis. That experience was extremely beneficial in practically applying what I had learnt, and ensuring continuity, from my education into relevant work experience. I gained an insight into researching and creating concise yet creative digital content, editing and scheduling material, and monitoring uptake.

What do you consider the most enjoyable aspect of volunteering to be?

Both opportunities were huge parts of my life at the time – I spent between 1-2 hours a day on these projects at times. The experience gave me a foundation in the environmental sector, and helped to steer my career. I found it both exhilarating and satisfying to devote time to pursuing work experience relevant to my education and to my future career. Now, I enjoy the opportunities to apply the skills and experience I gained to my current role with SNH.

Steven finds great creative inspiration in nature.

Steven finds great creative inspiration in nature.

How have your career and life aspirations been influenced by the volunteering you’ve done?

My volunteering has strongly reinforced my passion, and in some respects, a responsibility to inspire and educate others about the natural world and related key issues. I have a massive interest in environmental education, creative arts and communications – I am steering my career in those directions.

After six years, I finally secured work in the environmental sector – my voluntary pursuits definitely helped me get there. I now offer my skills and experience to SNH to help promote the work we do.

As a result of volunteering, what do you see your next steps being?

As part of my placement, I’ve already started developing interview skills, co-ordinating blogs and learning about videography (film capture and editing). My project looks at new ways of working with young people for, and in, nature. I’m also continuing to develop my social media communications within a formal organisation setting, and practice nature photography in my free time. The ultimate intention is to inspire people to engage with, enjoy, and care for nature. I will take these skills and the experience to my next role whether with SNH, or another environmental organisation.

Do you have any advice for anyone hoping to volunteer?

While you can undertake volunteering at any time of your life, in hindsight, my career may have benefitted had I pursued opportunities a little earlier, particularly during my first and second years of university education where you have more free time, and there is less pressure on your academic achievement.

My advice to anyone would be to determine the time you have to offer, what will benefit your career aspirations and get involved as soon as possible – the experience is invaluable, and greatly contributes to both future job applications and life experience. It can be a few hours, or a day a week. Write, call or visit an organisation and ask about potential opportunities. The information is available online, or you can call, email or even visit a potential employer – it’s always good experience to communicate with potential employers: it shows you’re enthusiastic, and it gives you an opportunity to build your communication skills.Focus on volunteering stamp


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Habitat Map of Scotland, our favourite habitats – Siliceous alpine and boreal grasslands [H6150]

The Habitat Map of Scotland is mapping our habitats of European importance. This is one of our most important upland habitats. In the wider European Nature Information System (EUNIS) habitat classification this corresponds to E4.21 (Oroboreal Carex bigelowii-Racomitrium moss-heaths)

Ben Wyvis from the south. © Peter Wakely/SNH

Ben Wyvis from the south. © Peter Wakely/SNH

No, please, don’t look away!   Seriously, these are stunning, moss-dominated mountain summit heaths in northern regions.  Draping the highest shoulders, these mossy carpets are home to nesting dotterel and ptarmigan.  Des Thompson, our Principal Adviser on Science and Biodiversity tells us more.

Driving on the A9, and bearing down on Inverness, look straight ahead – over Inverness, and beyond the Beauly Firth and Dingwall – to Ben Wyvis. There, look at that great sprawling  hulk of a mountain – but steady,  concentrate on the road!  On the top, cloaking the extensive summit ridge, is the largest single carpet of this mossy heath in Britain.

If you can, visit Ben Wyvis NNR, park at Garbat on the A835, and head east for the first peak, An Cabar. There, feel the mossy bounce of the heath underfoot.  The stiff (or Bigelow’s) sedge adds texture, and spanglings of lichens give colour.  And what a variety of golden, yellow and brown hues to behold, depending on the light, mist and rain.  In the spring, as you head north east for the summit, look to the skyline, for if you are lucky you may see a rare dotterel bobbing, and perfectly camouflaged.  Often confiding, this bird is unusual in that the male alone cares for eggs and chicks.  He can be so tame that ‘moss fool’ is one nickname still used in northern England.

A colour-ringed young dotterel, studied by Dr Alistair Baxter for his PhD. Photo: Des Thompson

A colour-ringed young dotterel, studied by Dr Alistair Baxter for his PhD. Photo: Des Thompson

This heath is one of our best indicators of air quality. Dependent almost entirely on rainfall and mist for its nutrients, it is a superb barometer of acidic deposition.  Research has shown how these heaths have fragmented south of the Highlands where relatively high levels of atmospheric nitrogen have favoured some grasses at the expense of the moss.  Close monitoring of these heaths tells us a lot about how air quality is changing.

Getting close to the mossy heath. Photo: Des Thompson

Getting close to the mossy heath. Photo: Des Thompson

Oh, and another snippet regarding Ben Wyvis – just look at how often the mountain has a cap of cloud over it, with the misty cloak a snug fit for the mossy heath.  Some mountain habitats just love to be smothered in mist and rain!  To quote the poet Sanober Khan, “you make autumn mist taste like champagne and turn winter rain into the elixir of life itself.”

SNH staff on a site visit heading into the mists at the summit of Ben Wyvis. © Lorne Gill/SNH

SNH staff on a site visit heading into the mists at the summit of Ben Wyvis. © Lorne Gill/SNH

And how’s this for a myth? It is said that in 1769 a deer forest on the flank of Ben Wyvis was given to Sir Harry Munro on the strict condition of: ‘delivering a snowball on any day of the year that it is demanded’ by the monarch!  Well, this is nearly possible, as Ben Wyvis has some of our longest lying snowbeds.  Now, these really are fascinating, often seen as twinkling white specks from a great distance.   And of course, the EUNIS classification doesn’t disappoint, referring to these as Boreo-alpine fern snowbed grasslands (E4.14).  Anyone want to delve into these?!

Go and seek out the riches of Ben Wyvis NNR yourself.

This is one of  a series of blogs on habitats mapped by the Habitat Map of Scotland project.

More information on the project is available here.
More information on the data is here.
You can view the data on Scotland’s environment web map here.
A link to the original blog on Scotland’s environment blog.



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Advance, entrench, hold the line

This is the NNR front line – the place where Scotland’s coast is growing fastest, pushing eastwards into the North Sea. On average, Tentsmuir Point has expanded by nearly five metres each year for more than two centuries. It’s a process that has been happening at different rates for millennia.

Aerial view of Tentsmuir NNR. ©Photo-Aerial Photography Solutions

Aerial view of Tentsmuir NNR. ©Photo-Aerial Photography Solutions

That’s why the former island where Mesolithic people made use of the Tentsmuir and Morton coast for fishing and hunting thousands of years ago is now several kilometres inland. Why a stone put near the shore to mark a boundary between salmon fishing areas a few centuries ago is now deep in the forest. Why the seals that haul out on Abertay Sands now need to peer back inland, over the beach and towards the trees, to glimpse the line of large concrete blocks laid close to the tide’s edge just under 80 years ago.

These tank traps were put in place on the beach in 1940. Since then the sand dune system at Tentsmuir has grown seawards by about five metres a year. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

These tank traps were put in place on the beach in 1940. Since then the sand dune system at Tentsmuir has grown seawards by about five metres a year. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

The blocks – some of which are also in the forest – are ‘tank traps’. Installed here in 1940 as part of coastal defences against Nazi invasion, they’re now the most striking reminder of the work of the Polish troops who were based at Tentsmuir during the Second World War. Together with thousands of their compatriots based elsewhere, these ‘Polish Corps’ soldiers played a crucial part in the Allied war effort. That included being tasked with the defence of the whole of Fife and Angus.

Highlands home and away

The first Polish troops at Tentsmuir were part of a battalion named after Podhale, the southernmost region in Poland. Sometimes called the ‘Polish Highlands’, the region includes part of the Tatra Mountains. On clear days, Polish soldiers at Tentsmuir could look north to see one fringe of the Scottish Highlands. Maybe, as Norwegian special troops training in the Cairngorms said at that time, those mountains reminded some of them of home and strengthened their resolve as soldiers.

A photograph in the archives of the Imperial War Museum makes the international importance of the Polish work at Tentsmuir obvious. It was taken on Wednesday, 23 October, 1940, just over a year after Germany had invaded Poland, goading Britain and France to declare war. So the Polish soldiers fighting for the allies here and beyond were exiles, committed to freeing their homeland – and the whole of Europe – from Nazi domination.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspecting troops of the 1st Rifle Brigade (1st Polish Corps) with General Władysław Sikorski, the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, at Tentsmuir, 23 October 1940. General Gustaw Paszkiewicz, the Commander of the Brigade, is behind General Sikorski. © IWM (H 4961)

Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspecting troops of the 1st Rifle Brigade (1st Polish Corps) with General Władysław Sikorski, the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, at Tentsmuir, 23 October 1940. General Gustaw Paszkiewicz, the Commander of the Brigade, is behind General Sikorski. © IWM (H 4961)

The picture shows lines of them being inspected by an illustrious trio of leaders. To the fore is Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. Two days earlier, he had made a radio broadcast to the people of France, now also occupied by the Germans: “Remember,” he said, “we shall never stop, never weary, and never give in, and that our whole people and empire have bowed themselves to the task of cleansing Europe from the Nazi pestilence and saving the world from the new Dark Ages.”

At Churchill’s side is General Wladyslaw Sikorski – already a national Polish hero before WWII and now Commander-in-Chief of the country’s armed forces in the west. Just behind is General Gustaw Paskiewicz, commander of the soldiers at Tentsmuir.

His story reveals some of the turbulence of the times that both he and his troops had experienced before and during the war. A soldier in the Imperial Russian Army before the Russian Revolution, Paskiewicz then became an officer in the Polish army. When Germany invaded, he escaped to Romania, then reached France. When that country fell in May 1940, he fled to Britain, becoming a commander in the Polish Armed Forces in the west.

He was able to go back to Poland after the end of the war in Europe in 1945. General Sikorski never returned home, dying in a plane crash off Gibraltar in the summer of 1943. Churchill became famous as one of the most charismatic leaders in British wartime history.

And for a short part of that history, they were here – those leaders and exiles, whether world-renowned or – in the case of the troops – mostly anonymous, helping the struggle to defend Scotland and liberate Europe. Little remains to show where the Polish brigade lived and worked here; just some footings of buildings and a few carvings on concrete and stonework in the forest, some with names of Polish towns.

But in this place where Scotland’s most dynamic coastal edge looks east across the grey North Sea, there are still stories to be told from not so long ago; proud memories held in the blocks of stone.

This is the fifth in a series of six blogs about some surprising historical and archaeological connections to our NNRs, contributed by writer and broadcaster Kenny Taylor. If you’ve missed his earlier blogs you can catch up with them here:

Don’t judge a bog by its cover

The strange appeal of cut and peel

Holding the forts at Caerlaverock

The Narrows of Loch Fleet

Why not visit Tentsmuir NNR yourself to see the remains of the Second World War built by the ‘Polish Corps’ moving inland with the shifting sands as well as the many natural treasures there.


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The many attractions and benefits of volunteering

Our Themed Month for January will throw a spotlight on Environmental Volunteering.  We are delighted to get the ball rolling with an insight on the attraction of volunteering from Peter Cunningham.  A retiree, Peter highlights the many attractions and benefits that convinced him to volunteer at the Seven Lochs Wetland Park, bordering North-east Glasgow and North Lanarkshire.

Geese on frozen Hogganfield Loch, Glasgow. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

Geese on frozen Hogganfield Loch, Glasgow. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

How did you begin your volunteering?

I got involved with the Seven Lochs volunteers after seeing them out working in the local area. I was previously with the local Green Gym which I joined after retiring. I was always fond of the outdoors but just never found the time to do anything about it.

How often do you volunteer?

I mostly come out every Friday, but have been out on other days that might crop up.

What activities do you undertake?

Numerous tasks! Most recently we have been cutting back overgrown vegetation, making hedgehog boxes, planting bulbs to provide early nectar for pollinator species, and digging a shallow seasonal ‘scrape’ habitat for amphibians and invertebrates.  

What are the benefits for yourself?

It stops me from becoming a couch potato!  It keeps me fit, and it’s good to meet folk that I wouldn’t normally meet.

Have you learned any new skills? 

Willow fence building is one activity that comes to mind.

What’s the best thing about your conservation volunteering? 

For myself, getting out and about doing practical and worthwhile activities, and it’s also very satisfying when a member of the public mentions how much they appreciate the work we do.

Do you have a favourite place with the group?

I like working at Hogganfield Loch. It’s a stunning location to do anything in.   

Have you learned anything about local nature?

I’ve been learning about the fossorial water voles in my area. I am also more aware of the work put into taking care of the open spaces for people and wildlife alike. 

Would you recommend environmental volunteering to others? 

Yes, I would recommend it to everyone to try at least once. You might not like it but you’ll never know until you try. It can be immensely satisfying participating in the tasks we are given. It also keeps you fit and it might even lead to a different career if the nature bug bites.

Sum up in a word your volunteering? 


Peter Cunningham, Seven Lochs volunteer.

Peter Cunningham, Seven Lochs volunteer.

For further information about the project, contact Claire Quinn, Seven Lochs Heritage Volunteering Officer at claire.quinn@sevenlochs.org

Find out more about the Seven Lochs Wetland Park here.

Focus on volunteering stamp


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Don’t judge a bog by its cover

In a mere ten kilometres, north as the hen harrier flies from the Crinan Canal over the snaking channel of the River Add to Kilmartin Glen and Carnassarie, lies one of the finest troves of ancient and historic heritage in northwest Europe. In his fourth blog of the series, Kenny Taylor explores the amazing archaeological treasures around Moine Mhor NNR.

Misty morning over the raised bog at Moine Mhor NNR. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Misty morning over the raised bog at Moine Mhor NNR. © Lorne Gill/SNH

First comes the low sweep of the Moine Mhor NNR, where the fort rock of Dunadd, former power base for the Scotti tribe, stands proud of the sodden boglands.

Dip low, like a summer-flitting marsh fritillary butterfly (which also has a stronghold here), down over moss and heath and field and wood. Now the details become legion:

  • Rock carvings, both swirled in enigmatic ‘cup and ring marks’ or chiselled deep to make a footprint at Dunadd (some say for the inauguration of kings) or the shape of a wild boar.

    'Footprint' at Dunadd. © Simon Bramwell, Creative Commons

    ‘Footprint’ at Dunadd. © Simon Bramwell, Creative Commons

  • Standing stones, raised proud and solitary or in circles, each monolith an individual, marked both by millennia of weathering and the working of human masons.
  • Grey boulders heaped in round cairns, or piled with care above a central chamber where the remains of the dead (bones cleaned before burial, perhaps, by eagles, kites and ravens) could be interred for a while.
  • Then under, to where worms and beetles move among the traces of monuments and burials now unseen at the surface: marks from massive oak trunks, once raised in a timber circle; stains of wood from the sides of cists that held the dead; or lines in the earth, roughly parallel along tens of metres, whose ‘cursus’ hints at ritual processions long gone.

All these are here, as are clues within the peat layers of the Moine Mhor to past environments and changes of weather, as people came to settle this part of Argyll, made their homes here, moved on, gave way to other cultures and ways of living and celebrating and honouring their kin.

Searching for lost pages

Looking at what is obvious at the surface of this amazing landscape is a bit like judging book contents from their spines and outer wraps. For there’s so much that lies beneath; so many riches yet to be uncovered. It’s those hidden riches, bonny though the colours and patterns of bog moss and fritillary are, that give the Moine Mhor is full value for heritage and science. The NNR is part of a wider story, stretching from the mosslands through the drier ground of Kilmartin Glen. It’s a work whose chapters are only now being sketched, with many words and pages still missing.

Moine Mhor NNR. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Moine Mhor NNR. © Lorne Gill/SNH

But what can be written from recent research gives tantalising hints of what could be in the wider tale. Take the excavations at Upper Largie, for example. This lies at the northwest edge of the area, but suggests themes for the whole landscape.

Excavations at Upper Largie, from the 1980s sporadically until 2005, revealed what the archaeologists reporting the digs call a ‘palimpsest’ (delicious word..) of ancient activities stretching across several millennia. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were here some 5,500 years ago, leaving faint traces. Hundreds of years later, Neolithic people left more obvious remains, in material such as flint scrapers (one made with stone from Yorkshire, another with pitchstone from Arran) in pits. Centuries after that, they raised a timber circle, which stood for a few decades. The marks where its posts were erected still remain below ground.

Largie South Cairn, Kilmartin Glen. © Christian Hacker Creative Commons

Largie South Cairn, Kilmartin Glen. © Christian Hacker, Creative Commons

A beaker speaks volumes

Eventually, some 2,500 years after the hunter-gatherers passed through, Bronze Age folk left skilfully worked clay beakers beside bodies in burial cists. The maker had decorated one of these by pressing a fine-toothed comb, hundreds of times, into the clay.

While the surface was still moist, they had buffed the beaker to a low sheen, perhaps using an animal-skin pad. The pottery style, more akin to work being created at that time in what is now the Netherlands, suggests the possibility that the person buried here might have been a immigrant from the continent. The connections widen, just as the stone-age scrapers point to trade or movement across land and sea far beyond.

Inside, at the broadest part of the beaker’s belly, there are slight finger marks: the imprint of the maker, held in clay across three thousand years. Quite literally, that’s a tangible reminder of what could be held below the surface of this landscape.

Moine Mhor, with its deep peat, could yet reveal much of the past in a different way, through evidence of sea level changes, climate shifts and how plants and fauna responded to them: environmental history, held in its layers, to add to knowledge of the past and help planning for the future.

Neolithic stone with Bronze Age cup and ring marks at Kilmartin. © Kenny Taylor

Neolithic stone with Bronze Age cup and ring marks at Kilmartin. © Kenny Taylor

Come and experience the nature and history of the rich landscapes at Moine Mhor NNR.

Or discover more of the story and see the many artifacts at Kilmartin Museum.

Creative Commons images are used under license.

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