The 2017-2018 intake of SNH Graduate Placements took to the Highlands in mid December to visit Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve (NNR). As part of their training and development, they ventured out to learn more about reserve management and volunteering. Steven Sinclair, our Year of Young People 2018 Graduate Placement, provides Part 2 of the Creag Meagaidh Diary Entries.
Monday 11th December 2017
The sun sings a victory, and through parting clouds, attempts to warm the steely hearts of the graduates on day two of our graduate trip to Creag Meagaidh NNR. The weather is unpredictable and there is snow forecast. With a passion for the environment and outdoor enjoyment, we’re all prepared to the last. Or so we think.
Day two of our graduate trip is devoted to volunteering. As we disembark from the pool cars, what’s in store for our group still eludes us. There is no rest for the wicked. Our arrival at the Reserve office is followed by a flurry of preparation and immediate deployment to the shores of Loch Laggan where we are tasked with the removal of non-native tree species, to promote regeneration of native species across the area.
The group of graduates and three volunteers fan out across the area in twos and threes armed with wood saws and shears. The heavens have ominously closed over: through winter’s silence, a beautiful curtain of snowflakes begin to fall, blanketing an area already beneath two feet of snow but quelling, not, our enthusiasm or humour.
We take to our task with fervour. Ross (the Reserve Officer) has felled three by the time we reach our first. The bark of the chainsaw ricochets through the calm for the duration of our task, driving us on to make the reserve staff proud of our efforts (though we were never told how well we did!).
We quickly draw upon team work to co-ordinate our efforts in a timely fashion. Two or three to a tree – two sawing in turns, one distributing weight to aid the fall. As each tree falls it drops a deluge of snow on those unlucky to be below. Two individuals carefully remove the felled trees downslope to a clearing. Safety, communication and a keen eye is paramount. Emboldened, we spend the next two hours removing as many trees as we can, experiencing the harsh reality of physical volunteering in winter. We are, however, satisfied with our efforts to restore native Highland character to this small area.
A vehicle horn greets us echoing through the tree tops from the main road, signalling the end of our task. We are swiftly ushered along the A86 to another section of the Reserve with the task of learning more about deer management at Creag Meagaidh.
After a 30-minute walk through the forestry plantation – which resembles Narnia’s Lantern Waste at times – we come to a barren escarpment overlooking a majestic Loch Laggan. A mist has descended, and all is eerily quiet. The voice of Rory, the Creag Meagaidh reserve manager, booms across the heathland, encouraging us up the slopes to where several red deer have been culled but an hour earlier.
It is here that the graduates explore Highland red deer management and the positive role they play within reserve management. Creag Meagaidh acts as a sink for deer migration from neighbouring areas, given the quality of the habitats in comparison to some outlying areas. SNH carries out visual deer counts throughout the winter months by helicopter to gain a better picture of herd density, movements and concentrations at reserve hotspots. With this information to hand, targeted culling ensures healthy populations by mimicking the pressure previously applied by natural predators.
The successful natural regeneration of trees we’ve seen across Creag Meagaidh highlights the importance of carefully managing deer populations on the remote areas of the Reserve – deer effectively help with woodland management, browsing on smaller or weaker trees. We also learn the technicalities of gralloching; and back at the reserve office, we learn about preparation and the larder. Deer populations across Creag Meagaidh are considered incredibly healthy – free to roam as they are through varied wild environments. The venison is returned into the local food chain, with sales to game dealers and private buyers.
A score of current and past Creag Meagaidh volunteers are given the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in deer and reserve management through volunteering projects, practical work experience and independent studies.
Our time at Creag Meagaidh comes to a close with the opportunity to conduct informal interviews, filming, photography and further tours of the office grounds. The experience has been invaluable; the scenery outstandingly magical and chance to meet and learn from experienced staff and volunteers, joyful.
As we travel homeward, it doesn’t take long to see the touch of a cold winter settling into the ranges and valleys of Scotland’s magnificent Highlands: pheasants scatter across crisp moorland drifts; the dramatic crags and vast swathes of Scots pine across Scotland’s upland environment are highlighted in stark contrast by the dusting of snow and winter tones; and plumes of smoke rise above a sea of lodges, coffee shops and cottages highlighting a population-wide need for warmth.
The sun swiftly sets behind the regal silhouettes of the Cairngorms as we travel southward, and we are plunged into the depths of an early December evening.
You can read part one of the Creag Meagaidh Diary Entries here.
You can learn more about the SNH Graduates by checking out their previous contribution here.