From orange orchards to Ariundle Oakwoods

Mapping all the interactions between our intrinsic inclinations and responses to our surroundings and experiences would need a Divine eye. What I do know is that I have felt an internal compass pointing me towards the natural world throughout my life.  That compass hums when I am in the right place. Zeshan Akhter, our Biodiversity Strategy Officer, explains the importance of biodiversity for us all.


I remember long, hot summers during school holidays spent outdoors all day, the tall columns of lime trees in the garden of my home and their swaying, whispering green canopies overhead. I remember a holiday in Pakistan spent on my dad’s family farm: of playing in orange orchards, noisy familial trips to climb mulberry trees to eat the purple fruit that hung from their branches and jumping the irrigation canals. As I moved through school and university, I tried on different sciences until something clicked when I studied zoology and marine science. I remember the adventure books I read. Now I look back at the books that included talking animals…to a child, this is eminently possible…as an adult, I am driven to consider that it is we humans who must strive to use every compassionate means at our disposal to understand the other creatures with which we share this planet.

Kinnow tree growing in Punjab.

Kinnow tree growing in Punjab.

I do remember the exact moment I decided to work in nature conservation…I had pulled out a book in the university library that was about the history of Greenpeace. In it, there was a pencil drawing of a gated factory complex in front of which a solitary dandelion flower had pushed its way up through the concrete gaps. I remember feeling deep despair but at the same time an overwhelming need to take positive action to protect this world. In my ancestral culture, there is a saying…“If Doomsday comes upon you and you find yourself with a palm tree in your hand, plant it.”  i.e. don’t give up hope, take action.

I wanted to work for SNH because I knew it was the lead statutory organisation appointed by the government to protect nature in Scotland where I had grown up. So when the chance of a six month fixed-term post arose within the Designated Sites team, I took it. So I left a full-time, permanent (non conservation-related) job in another statutory agency in order to take the temporary post as a Protected Sites Data Manager at SNH. It was a huge risk and one that I probably could not have taken without my family’s support.

However, the risk paid off and this year I am celebrating my fifteenth anniversary of working here. In recognition of long service, the organisation offers staff an opportunity to have a tree planted on one of its reserves. I chose Ariundle Oakwoods National Nature Reserve on the west coast. It is one of those forests that looks as though it is carpeted in emerald green, where lichens and bryophytes literally drip off every branch and stem.  How magical to be part of an organisation that recognises its staff’s commitment by creating a living legacy.

For the last ten years at SNH, I have worked as a Biodiversity Strategy Officer in the Biodiversity Strategy Team. Ariundle Oakwoods National Nature Reserve is the kind of special natural place that the Strategy seeks to protect. But, at the heart of the Strategy there is a commitment to do much more than classic nature conservation work.

2,017 years have passed since the Christian calendar began and human civilisations have come and gone for millenia before that. Building on the discoveries of our ancestors, only now are we in the infancy of reaching outwards from our own planet into space. Looking back at our blue-green planet, astronauts have conveyed their wonder at seeing Earth from space. They opened our collective eyes and hearts to that same wonder through the photographs that they took. One particularly famous image is called “Earthrise” and was taken by Apollo 8 Lunar Module Pilot William Anders. When the astronauts of Apollo 8 broadcast those photos, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, said:

“The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”

This extraordinary world, bustling with life, is now being horribly damaged by us.

Earthrise by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders.

Earthrise by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders.

When medical students graduate, they swear to uphold the Hippocratic Oath. For doctors, who have the knowledge of the human body to either heal or harm, this oath is the central statement of intention that they live by.

Perhaps this is closest in spirit to what the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy seeks from Scotland and all its people: a statement of intent that they will do no harm and a commitment to collectively find ways of living and working that do not.

Urban environments can create an illusion that nature is irrelevant to our lives. We live in environments that shut out nature: houses; offices; we travel on surfaces that we build; we travel on land, water, air and even space in vehicles we design; water comes from taps indoors; we buy food at supermarkets. It would seem that nature has become redundant to our way of living but that is not so. Nature, healthy and functioning, is what allows us to meet our needs. The Biodiversity Strategy emphasises all these crucial dependencies and finds ways to bring people together so that they can recognise them and choose to protect nature whilst continuing to meet their needs.

It is my honour and privilege to be a part of this process.

Zeshan Akhter at St Abbs Head NNR.

Zeshan Akhter at St Abbs Head NNR.

Kinnow tree growing in Punjab and Earthrise are Creative Commons images.

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