This year under a rainbow, we celebrated our third trip to the Cairngorms on the Conservation Science course. Thanks to David Heatherington, Glen Feshie Estate, CairnGorm Mountain, Peter Cosgrove and Rothiemurchus Estate and Badaguish Outdoor Centre and our bus driver Keith for supporting our trip! Our fearless leaders were lecturers Isla Myers-Smith and Aidan Keane.
We started of the field trip by meeting with David Heatheringon from Cairngorms National Park discussing the unique management of a natural area with people working and living within it.
On Saturday morning, we visited the Glen Feshie estate and discussed natural woodland regeneration and control of deer populations.
We flew our drone over the mother Scots pine tree to capture the natural beauty and conservation potential of the next generation Caledonia Forest.
On Saturday, we rode the funicular and climbed to the top of Cairn Gorm mountain spotting ptarmigan, snow buntings and alpine plants on the way. Here we are in our group photo on the summit!
We learned from Peter Cosgrove, local conservation expert, about the most important species in shaping British history – the freshwater pearl mussel and the conservation actions being taken today to preserve the species in Scotland.
On Sunday, we visited the Rothiemurchus Estate and met with Alph to discuss management activities including the farming of cattle and deer, fishing, forestry and tourism.
Finally, we ended the field trip with a tea party at the Potting Shed Tearoom eating some of the best cake in the UK and discussing what we learned over the weekend.
All and all it was a great trip! Let’s hear from our PhD tutors all about the Conservation Science that they were teaching during the weekend.
Mariana – IUCN conservation status expert
I prepared an activity that ended up being named ‘Threatened or not?’. First, the students had to choose from a pool of Scottish species and identify them, with some even being able to say their Latin name! After that, we gathered all the information that we knew on the species, including whether it was endemic to Scotland, its distribution range, its population size and threats. On the basis of these, the students had to decide whether the species was threatened or not following the IUCN Red List – and there were a few surprises! The quiz highlighted how we can create misconceptions by assuming that certain species are threatened when they are actually not, and vice versa. Finally, we discussed the importance of taxonomy, hybridisation and the local context when assessing the extinction risk of a species. Overall, the trip was a fantastic opportunity for the students to engage in discussions with experts in their field and to hear first-hand about a wide range of conservation issues. And of course, to experience some beautiful landscapes and to show our music skills around the bonfire!
Zac Conservation conflict expert
This year saw the return of highland laird, Lord A. V Moore, who once again chaired a town hall debate surrounding the future land management of the Cairngorms National Park. Encircling a roaring bonfire, the students formed small groups, each representing a different stakeholder interest concerning land –use and the ‘natural’ environment of the area. Many different voices were represented, including the local tourism body, a group of gamekeepers, a conservation NGO and a forestry organisation. Each group had time to prepare and deliver a short speech, during which time they could also respond to ‘points of information’ from the floor. The tourism body went first and put forward a strong economic case for a rapid increase in recreational access to the mountains (in the form of a bold new zip-line). Next came the gamekeepers who elegantly argued for the strong cultural and economic value of grouse moors. Following on the forestry organisation pressed home the need for reforestation and the social and environmental benefits of increased woodland across the area. Finally, the conservation NGO representatives gave a compelling case for biodiversity protection, which combined both intrinsic, instrumental and bequest valuations of nature. Each group then had the chance to cast their vote, to decide which other cause (beyond their own) was worthy of winning the debate. Alas, it was the tourism board that emerged victorious, not least – it can be assumed – due to their bold idea to introduce sustainable, and conspicuously moor woody (excuse the pun), grouse hunting by zip-line.
Sandra – Photographer and alpine treeline expert
There is surely no better time of year to visit the Cairngorms. There is just something special about the way the yellow birch and larch filter the light when the sun is low in the sky. And while this may be a very romantic view of the effect of trees on the landscape, we also discussed in much more pragmatic terms the issues around woodland management in Scotland. At Glenfeshie estate, we saw what happens when you lower deer densities: where one Scots pine was standing tall but lonely on the moor, countless seedlings and saplings are now emerging and may someday make up a forest that will blanket the hillside. And, as we realised when discussing the climatic controls of treelines, much of our Highlands are not quite arctic enough to prevent tree regeneration (if you don’t count the very arctic-like top of Cairngorm Mountain!). Therefore, the future of forests in this region seems to be much more in the hands of landowners and stakeholders than at the mercy of rain, wind and snow.
Haydn – Scottish woodland expert and NERC intern
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams suggests that ancient economists, upon deciding to use leaves as currency, overcame the resulting problem of inflation by burning all the forests. Scanning the horizon in parts of the Scottish Highlands, you might be forgiven in thinking that some landowners past (and even present) have had rather the same idea. On the banks of the River Feshie, underneath a copse of regenerating pine, we discussed whether the woods should return to the hills. Should the fantasy of an ancient Caledonia should be brought to life amidst the foggy glens? Should the rank and file of Canadian conifers provide home-grown, sustainable timber? Should the roar of the stag and gaggle of the grouse find its home on the bare hills, iconically Scottish, all around the blooming heather.
Such questions are not simply of land use, nor simply of ecology. Who decides? What is it for? Who is it for? Land ownership and the distribution of benefits inevitably, but necessarily, pervaded our discussions. To some, ownership itself was the key – the vast proportion of land in Scotland that belongs to wealthy individuals or giant corporations was in itself unjust. To others, the outcome mattered more – a healthy ecology or free and open access for the public, regardless of ownership. One thing was certain as we continued to wander through Glen Feshie, golden confetti raining down from rejuvenated woodlands, all thanks to the second-largest landowner in Europe. The answers aren’t easy.
Gergana – Biodiversity expert and course alumna
I have been dreaming of going to the field trip for two years, and this year it finally happened! I took the Conservation Science course as a student two years ago, and I loved it! The opinion piece was definitely one of my favourite assignments ever, and earlier this year, it got published in the Biosphere magazine – you can check it out here if you are keen to learn about conservation in the Australian Outback. I was also very excited about the course having a blog, so I couldn’t stop myself at writing just the blog post that was part of the course assignments, and wrote one more about how our obsession with rare species might be hampering conservation. Overall, I was very inspired and motivated by the course. I was also very bummed out, because I couldn’t go along to the field trip back then, so I only got to hear the amazing stories and look at the beautiful photos. When I came back to the University of Edinburgh this fall as a PhD student, I was thrilled that not only will I get to do my dream research, but I will also be able to do my dream tutoring on the Conservation Science and GeoScience Outreach courses. As we headed out to the Cairngorms, well, you probably couldn’t see my enthusiasm and excitement, because I get motion sickness very easily, but once we arrived, I was all ready for adventure!
The activity I led was a game called “Species on the move”. Here is the premise. Faced with climate change, habitat change, conflicts with human activities and naturally occurring environmental change, species have three options: adapt, move, or go extinct. We focused on moving, or changes in distribution ranges, as this strategy might be particularly relevant in Scotland, where climate change and land use change might force species to move. Each student drew a species card and joined one of two ecological communities. The students, each representing a species, lined up – their current habitats were no longer suitable, so they had to move. Species traits, human attitude and conservation support all influence the success of species on the move. I then called out various criteria for movement, like: “If you can fly, take one step forward”, “If fences can’t stop you, take one step forward”. Half way through we introduced lynx and beaver in our ecological communities, which then had effects on the success of some of the already present species.
The aim of the game was to find out which species first reach their new, more suitable habitat. As students were taking steps forwards and sometimes back (poor rare alpine plants!), we could already put together a picture of how intrinsic factors, like species’ traits, interact with extrinsic factors like land management and conservation interventions, to create dynamic ecosystems, where some species will be winners, and others losers, Afterwards, we heard from our winning and losing species, who all shared their strategies for success or what held them back. Haydn, our Scottish crossbill, shared why he was way behind Thomas, the Common crossbill. Or were those meant to be the same species? Afterwards all of us, winners and losers, had a warm cup of tea and ate delicious cake, a lovely finish to our adventures in the Highlands!
Thanks to all who participated and supported another great field trip to the Cairngorms!