25 years of SNH – Reserve Manager at Tentsmuir NNR

After working for BT for 28 years, Tom Cunningham needed a change of direction which resulted in the job he’d been dreaming about: managing Tentsmuir NNR. He started as the Assistant Reserve Manager and nine months later he became the Reserve Manager. 20 years on he looks back over his time there.

Tom out inspiring a group of students at Tentsmuir Point. © Steph Haworth

Tom out inspiring a group of students at Tentsmuir Point. © Steph Haworth

Over the last 20 years there have been some wonderful achievements in all areas of our work.

Wildlife management

We started by felling and removing 95% of the tree and scrub from Tentsmuir Point to allow the regrowth and spread of the sand dune-rich flora. We still have to manage the growth of trees annually.

At Morton Lochs, when I started here, the reeds were so dense you couldn’t see the water. Since 1999, every year we manage the open water on all the lochs to keep them at the desired state. Last year we cleaned out the west loch for apparently the first time ever and we created two reed beds in the Inflow feeder burn.

Also at Morton Lochs we have installed four bird and squirrel hides over the recent years which are well used by visitors .

Wildlife hide on the North Loch at Morton Loch NNR.

Wildlife hide on the North Loch at Morton Loch NNR. ©Lorne Gill/SNH


We produced the first Education Pack for NNRs for Tentsmuir NNR – Life in the Sands, now in edition 2, created to meet the Curriculum for Excellence. Since 1998 we have had over 461 education visits which is well over 8000 students, liaising with nursery, primary, secondary and tertiary education establishments. The first Nature School in Scotland (the 3rd in the UK) was established here at Morton Lochs in 2001.

Research on the Reserve sites has been amazing with universities and colleges from throughout the UK visiting and carrying out research and we achieve approximately 14 studies annually.

Tentsmuir NNR openday 2004.

Tentsmuir NNR openday 2004. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

I also have provided talks in schools especially when the primary school cannot afford to hire a coach to bring them to the Reserve.

One of the best things about this job is meeting people, especially school groups, and leading them around either Morton Lochs or Tentsmuir Point revealing all the great places and observing the wildlife and watching their faces when they get that WOW factor – it’s priceless.

After ten or more years talking about a much-needed shelter for school visits to Tentsmuir Point which will be used by everyone, we have the architects drawings, all the planning and agreement from Historic Environment Scotland and others to go ahead. Now to see it hopefully built in my final year here at Tentsmuir NNR…


We have created a huge band of wonderful and loyal volunteers over the years and created great working relationships with Elmwood College students as well as Perth UHI College. All the staff here and the Student Placements studied at Elmwood. Without these fantastic volunteers we could never achieve all that that we do. Importantly, a good number of volunteers have gone on to full-time employment including two with SNH.

A great day's volunteering. ©Steph Haworth

A great day’s volunteering. ©Steph Haworth

Family Days

In 2000 I started the Annual Family Day event on Tentsmuir Point and this has attracted thousands of visitors. We have also run three joint Summer Family Days a year with Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) since 2010. My favourite big acts include Dr Bunhead performing his awesome scientific show of Burning, bubbling and exploding balls of fun stuff and Cat Frankitti who also creates amzing tailor-made performances. These events are made successful with the help of my wonderful colleagues from the Cupar Office running some fantastic activities.


We could be credited for being in at the start of wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan’s career when we filmed on the Reserve in 2004!

Tentsmuir NNR has featured on the radio and TV including Landward, The Adventure Show, and Out of Doors.

The arts

A fantastic achievement was engaging wildlife artist Derek Robertson as our Artist in Residence in 2013. Derek went way beyond what I had first expected and he has won many international awards for his wildlife art with some featuring the Tentsmuir wildlife. The same year, the late Dr Jim Stewart created some wonderful poems during his time as Poet in Residence; Jim was an amazingly talented wordsmith.


We have developed some excellent working relationships with the following people: Professors Rob Duck, Bob Crawford (who is in the process of writing a book on Tentsmuir and the NNR), Steve Buckland, David Read and many others at Universities throughout the UK. We now have a fantastic working relationship with local farmer Robert Lamont and his son Robbie who bring in their Limousin cattle to graze Tentsmuir Point and Morton Lochs every year and who assist with some management projects.

Another great partnership was working with Pammy Johal of Backbone, a fantastic woman who works to provide opportunities to marginalised groups, particularly black and minority ethnic women. We have had some truly inspiring and moving moments when we showed over 50 women and children from the Dundee International Women’s Centre around Tentsmuir Point. And many of these families continue to visit.

We have the only joint FCS employment of Assistant Reserve Manager Alex Easson. Alex has been here for 17 years.


In 1999 I produced the first Reserve Newsletter which is currently on edition No.37.

My own little gem is the Reserve Bibliography which I took on about 19 years ago when it was nine pages long with 300 odd entries, now it has 102 pages with 2,010 entries.

I developed a time line of Tentsmuir with facts going back from 27,000 years up to the present day. The Tentsmuir Time Line Trail along with sculptures throughout the 9km trail was born out of this.

Sand dunes and Marram grass at Tentsmuir NNR © Lorne Gill

Sand dunes and marram grass at Tentsmuir NNR © Lorne Gill

Everyday working on Tentsmuir NNR is different with a huge range of tasks and projects to be achieved, and of course the admin side of this post (and that of other Reserve Managers) has changed dramatically as the admin load gets heavier.

There are a good number of other landmark projects and stories but hey, I think that’s enough 🙂

Although retirement at some point beckons, who would want to change career when you have a great job like this?

Find out about visiting Tentsmuir NNR on our website.






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