George Winter, from Derby, recently spent 4 months volunteering at Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. However, this was far from his first time volunteering for outdoor work! Here he tells us about how his passion for the Scottish Highlands grew from experiences as a child, about the reserve, and what woodland management on a highland NNR involves.
When I was five years old, my grandparents won a holiday to Gairloch and I was lucky enough to be taken along with them. Since then, I’ve been transfixed by the landscape of the northwest highlands. What became annual visits to the region, shaped nearly every aspect of the person I am today. But beyond my personal connection to Wester Ross, there are many reasons why the opportunity to work with the team at this unique NNR is an opportunity I’d recommend to anyone.
The landscape of Beinn Eighe is seemingly all encompassing, with climatic zones ranging from temperate rainforest near the shores of Loch Maree to an environment not unlike the Arctic Tundra on the summit plateau.
Visually, it is a timeless landscape. When looking around from high up on the mountain, you can quite easily imagine the scraping and deep cracking of glaciers as they carved out the landscape over 10,000 years ago (especially with how much snow and ice has covered the hills this past winter!). More importantly, however, you can imagine into the future: a mountain shrouded by Scots Pine, Birch, Alder and the other flora that once dominated not only Beinn Eighe, but the whole of Caledonia. For the scientist, student or volunteer, there can surely be few places more exciting to get involved.
One of my responsibilities at Beinn Eighe was to help thin the forest whilst creating deadwood habitat. This meant winching trees over to create a horizontal log in which mosses, lichens and insects can mulch and leaving the exposed roots and soil for burrowing animals to make a home.
We’ve also been aiming to leave vertical, rooted deadwood. This is achieved by snapping trees rather than pulling them over entirely, thus creating the perfect environment for birds, squirrels and pine martins.
There was a bonus to our methods: as the tops of trees are brought to the ground, we have been able to access large quantities of pinecones for seed collection. These masses of pinecones are soaked twice, before being placed in trays slotted in a wooden container with a heater beneath them. This mimicking of natural processes releases their seeds that are then frozen to prepare for the following spring.
In the run up to this spring, we have been busy sorting the thousands of saplings that will be planted on to the mountain slopes to further extend the forest. In order to both condense the load and secure the survival of the trees themselves, we have been tightly bundling them in groups of 15. In addition to the dominant Scots Pine, we have worked with Alder, Elm, Holly, Rowan, Oak and Willow. Although my volunteering will have finished before the actual distribution, it is exciting to know that in the future, when I return, I’ll be able to look up at the forest and know I played a part in the re-generation of our ancient woodland.
I’ve also had the opportunity to help run several wildlife cameras. So far we’ve had no luck with the pair of golden eagles, but buzzards, pine martins, badgers, mice and roe deer have all made an appearance. One of the cameras has been set up in an accessible location in order for visiting school groups to learn about capturing footage of animals. Luckily, this has been one of our most successful locations, so far.
You may wonder what the living situation is when volunteering for a long stretch of time at the NNR. With a large hostel connected to the field office, sharing a living space has been a fun and highly social experience. After a day’s work in the forest, other volunteers and I have been able to enjoy communal meals, board games and movie nights. At the weekend, this community aspect leaves you with the option of a group walk, or some alone time with some of the best backcountry terrain in Europe to explore. I was somewhat nervous about getting bored after committing to such a long stretch of volunteering, but it’s been quite the opposite!
My time at Beinn Eighe NNR has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my life so far: not only have I had the opportunity to learn about the ecology of an area I have always cared about deeply, but it has inspired me to return to University and finish my degree after previously leaving at the end of my 2nd year. I re-join in September!
You can find out more about the Beinn Eighe and Loch Maree Islands National Nature Reserve here.