This is the year that Scotland hosts COP26, when world leaders will gather in Glasgow in November aiming to make progress on tackling climate change. Our summer Nature Adventure Days programme for 11-18 year-olds wove this theme through explorations of our countryside and coastline, thinking about ways in which we influence our natural environment locally and globally and about how we can amplify the voices of our young people and their opinions on climate change.
Thanks to continued funding from Baillie Gifford, this year the ranger service was able to offer 5 days of activities working in partnership with Headland Explorations. On the 7th July, 8 young people enjoyed a day on Staffa, travelling with Staffa Trips and experiencing a close encounter with a minke whale! A low tide gave the oppportuntity to explore the coastline below the puffin burrows with the whirr of puffin wings going back and fowards above our heads. We had lunch at the puffin colony and then took part in a storm petrel survey, playing a recorded call and listening for the response to find nest sites hidden amongst fallen boulders and old walls.
We thought about how the landscape and its wildlife has changed due to human actions, and might change in the future. On Staffa this ranges from the impacts of sea level rise (already being felt in the loss of other islands around the world) and increasing storms, facilities built for visitors (the hotel proposals that never came to be; a tourist shelter in use 200 years ago is now wildlife habitat again; whereas current visitor levels require improvements to paths and stairways to help with erosion and overcrowding), to the changing population numbers of seabirds and grazing animals.
The 21st of July saw another group of 8 young people voyage aboard the beautiful B.Marie with Alternative Boat Hire Iona. On a warm day with not enough wind for sailing, they decided on a trip around the south coast of the Ross of Mull to Traigh Gheal beach where they cleared up rubbish swept in from the sea, and enjoyed some impromptu raft-building and dinghy training! Lunchtime conversation centred around where all this marine plastic comes from, and how we can reduce it at source by choosing less packaging in the products we buy. Some clothing is even made out of recycled plastics collected from the oceans! We also talked about the areas where we don’t have direct control over our own choices, and part of the answer is to campaign and make our views known to decision-makers who can do something about the bigger issues.
The following week saw 4 intrepid adventurers climb up into the cloud on the Ardmeanach hills above Tiroran, to be rewarded with opportunities for rock-scrambling, an exciting find of a golden eagle wing feather, and an epic game of hide-and-seek in the woods on the way back down. Carpets of colourful flowers prompted discussions on biodiversity, and our lunchtime chat focused on pollinating insects, their importance in producing much of the food we eat, and what we can do to help them flourish. We looked down over Tiroran Community forest which we are also trying to make a better place for nature.
On 4th August we were rock climbing near Knockvologan with 11 young people. On the nearby beach of Traigh a’Mhill Knockvologan Studies artists helped us find ways to work as a team and produce giant artworks, inspired by the geoglyphs that ancient peoples used to mark their landscapes. Today’s lunchtime conversation was about how feeling a connection to our local environment (such as through rock climbing, outdoor art or growing our own food) can help us care for it – and that we can make choices such as purchasing local food or Fairtrade products to help others improve their own local environments while producing crops that we can’t grow here in our climate.
The final Nature Adventure Day this year found a group of 6 young people kayaking with Bendoran Watersports. After a great time on the water they thought about messages they would like to pass on to those in power politically or commercially, see if you can spot any of them here. If you would also like to make your views known ahead of COP26, please add your voice to the Climate Scotland campaign and show our leaders you care.
Our ranger service is under threat due to lack of funding. If you value the work that we do, please consider donating here. NatureScot will match fund every contribution up to a total of £6000 so every little helps!
During the past year of intermittent lockdowns I’ve found a lot more time for reading, curling up with a good book on days when the weather’s too extreme for meeting up with neighbours outside! Nature writing is now a vast and diverse genre, so I thought I would share some of the nature books that have inspired, amused and comforted me recently.
Simon Barnes writes with a humorous and light-hearted style and his book ‘Bird Watching with Your Eyes Closed’ is a great place to start for anyone wanting to tune into the birdsongs around us. He recommends beginning at this time of year, recognising the sounds you can hear in winter so that new songs will stand out to your ears as they build up throughout the spring. You’ll also find out why birds sing, and their connections with humanity over time: “Birdsong is not just about natural history. It is also about our history. We got melody from the birds as we got rhythm from the womb. Birds are our music: they teach us to express emotion and beauty in sound. The first instruments ever made were bird-flutes.” A free podcast accompanies the book and can be found here: https://shortbooks.co.uk/book/birdwatching-with-your-eyes-closed
We’re often told that ‘spending time in nature’ is good for us, its importance evidenced by the inclusion of our ‘daily walk’ as an essential reason to be out and about during lockdown…but what does this mean in practice? Perhaps it’s different for each of us. Gaelic place names reveal a lost everyday familiarity with details in the landscape. I’m sure beauty plays a part, although might not be enough when you’ve been scratched, bitten, stung or soaked, or are staring at yet another load of plastic washed up on the beach.
Scientific theories abound: from the health benefits of daylight, fresh air and exercise; to the phytochemicals emitted by plants which can have positive effects on our brain chemistry; the value of wonder and curiosity; or biophilia – even with all our technology, humans are still mammals after all and therefore fellow creatures at home in the natural world. For lockdown reading though, I wanted stories rather than theories, so here are my top recommendations for some personal stories where nature has a role in giving solace.
A severe illness forced William Fiennes to put his career on hold and return to the house where he grew up, once more depending on his parents for support. While convalescing he became fascinated by the garden birds, which inspired a new adventure. His book ‘The Snow Geese’ documents his travels as he follows birds across America, focusing on character studies of the people he meets along the way, and his thoughts on migration, homesickness and what it means to leave and to return.
Amy Liptrot couldn’t wait to leave Orkney for an exciting life in London, but years later as a recovering alcoholic finds herself drawn back north to its windswept clifftops. ‘The Outrun’ is her story of reconciling her need for excitement with the renewed hope she finds amongst wildlife and wide open spaces.
‘The Salt Path’ finds Raynor Winn and her terminally ill husband walking hundreds of miles around the coastline of Devon and Cornwall. Homeless after a failed investment took away their house, smallholding and the dreams they’d worked so hard for, they discover purpose in the daily rhythm of packing up the tent and walking on in the narrow strip between civilisation and the ocean. Its sequel ‘The Wild Silence’ contains one of the best descriptions I’ve read of how connection to the land can sustain us – between vigils at the hospital bed of her dying mother Ray wanders the fields of her childhood landscape, and wonders if their recent endurance journeys could hold the key to her husband’s health. (For those who prefer podcasts, Raynor tells her story here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p090xbkk)
At just 14, Dara McAnulty was the youngest ever winner of the Wainwright Prize and his ‘Diary of a Young Naturalist’ is so beautifully written. Chronicling a year in his life in which he faces bullying, school exams and moving house away from his favourite places, it shows amazing self-awareness as he describes what it’s like to be a young autistic boy with a passion for saving the planet. He must overcome difficulties of social interaction in order to follow his desire for environmental activism, along the way describing in intricate detail the lives of birds of prey, insects, wildflowers and his own family, all of them companions which delight and do not judge.
These are stories I will return to many times, and I hope you draw some inspiration as I have from accompanying authors who’ve written bravely about the sustaining power of connecting to nature even in times of deep distress. People who are honest about how tough life can be but somehow gain the resilience to keep on caring no matter what.
This time I’d like to tell you about some nature writing we have created! Former ranger service volunteers Natalie Weiner and Margaret McLarty have been working hard on writing and illustrating a children’s story called ‘Fisherman Pete and the Pirate Problem’. It’s a fun and informative book to teach children (and their parents) about the lives of puffins on the island of Staffa and how even the smallest visitors can play a big part in protecting both the island and the puffins that nest there! It explains how to behave around the puffin colony and that the presence of humans results in fewer attacks from the skuas which specialise in stealing food caught by other seabirds. Of course the skuas are as much part of the marine habitat, but this story is told from the puffins’ point of view!
Fisherman Pete is a little puffin with a big problem… a pirate problem! Captain Brown Beak and her band of Skuas are on a mission to steal the food Pete caught for his hungry family. Can you help him solve his problem and get home in time for tea?!
Designed by Toben Lewis of Baile Mor Books on Iona, and now available more widely on the NTS online shop, with all profits going towards conservation work on Staffa. https://www.nts.org.uk/shop/catalog/product/view/id/3906/s/fisherman-pete-the-pirate-problem/category/218/
Continuing the nature writing theme, this month I’m looking at the work of author Robert MacFarlane. His book ‘The Wild Places’ is a favourite of mine, in which he sets off on a serious of beautifully described journeys to remote corners of Britain and Ireland in search of wildness. In the end, his intense experiences in some awe-inspiring places teach him to be more attentive to the wild in the everyday, in the country lanes and fragments of woodland around the edges of his home city of Cambridge. Quite an appropriate message for lockdown life where we’ve all learned to find a new appreciation of nearby nature in our immediate surroundings.
Another book ‘Landmarks’ focuses on the vocabulary we use to describe the outdoors, how it varies across countries and regions, and how knowing the words can also help you to notice the details they describe. A recent NatureScot report on ‘Ecosystem Services and Gaelic’ (available online) also picks up on this fascinating theme, looking for evidence in Gaelic place-names, poetry and song of people’s relationship with nature and the many different ways it has provided our food, medicine, fuel, shelter, recreation over time. MacFarlane’s lovely ‘Lost Words’ series in collaboration with artist Jackie Morris also brings vividly to life through poems and pictures lots of simple nature words now removed from children’s dictionaries and I’ve greatly enjoyed making use of this material in my work with local schools.
In ‘The Old Ways’ he suggests two questions we should ask of any landscape: “…what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then…what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?” Whether you can’t wait to travel or are enjoying getting to know your local area in depth, I hope you enjoy your own explorations.
These reviews first appeared in ‘Round and About Mull and Iona’ magazine: https://roundandabout.scot/
What are some of your favourite nature writing reads?
As lockdown started to ease, the ranger service teamed up with Camas Outdoor Centre, Bendoran Water Activities Club, Headland Explorations and South West Mull and Iona Development’s new community garden to provide 3 weeks of outdoor activities for the second half of the school summer holidays. As all the usual summer island events were cancelled, we wanted to provide some fun primarily for local families who might not manage a break away this year after being cooped up homeschooling for weeks
Despite limited places available due to rules about the number of households able to meet together, we soon had happy kayakers in Camas bay and rock climbers tackling routes at Knockvologan and Camas Quarry.
Volunteer Abbie Cato helped plan and run some nature events for younger children. We went to Fionnphort beach and found lots of interesting rockpool creatures including shore crabs, blennies, two types of anemones and bright orange breadcrumb sponge:
Then played some games about food chains (who eats who in the rockpool), limpets (did you know they move around underwater eating algae, then as the tide goes out they go back to their ‘home scar’ where their shell grows to match the rock exactly and stop them drying out), dolphin echolocation (we’ve all noticed more marine mammals around during lockdown, with reduced boat traffic), and seabird migration – designing obstacle courses around which we had to throw stones representing birds on their journey.
The following week we had a real-life mystery quest at Camas – to figure out why there was an abandoned oystercatcher nest on the beach. We discussed how rangers might find out – looking for tracks and signs, watching from a hide, using trail cameras etc. Participants had great fun with magnifying glasses looking for wildlife clues down the track, such as footprints in the mud. We had a shortlist of 3 predators – mink, otter and raven and learned about where each of them lived, and practised moving like our chosen creature. Each child then had a pizza box with a lump of clay to make into a pizza and a list of toppings (the diet of their chosen animal) they had to collect things to represent these eg. crab shell, rabbit skull, grass seed to represent grain, make seaweed into a picture of a spider etc.) which we took up to Camas’ outdoor pizza oven and pretended to cook. Next we built a wildlife viewing hide in the woods from branches – and managed to stay still for 5 minutes while a few small birds came past. The group decided that the raven was the likely culprit and were rewarded with the sight and sound of one flying past overhead.
We also held an activity day at our emerging community garden in the grounds of the Ross of Mull Historical Centre, looing at invertebrates found in the stream and on bushes and trees. After hunting for them, drawing them and making cardboard models, it was time to help with garden clearance and we had a go at sawing rhododendron branches and trimming willow twigs. Everything will be reused for garden structures or wildife habitat piles.
After weeks of back-garden citizen science earlier this summer, I’ve also been having my own nature adventure days on several recent trips to Burg, checking on our species-rich grassland, clearing bracken and monitoring some rare species including the slender scotch burnet moth and the tiny Iceland purslane plant. Huge thanks to all the volunteers for their help! Had some lovely sightings of golden eagles and peregrines around the cliffs while there. Also on a pre-season trip to Staffa our boat was surrounded in all directions by dozens of common dolphins leaping into the air!
It’s great to be out and about again isn’t it? Whether local resident or visitor we can all play our part in leaving no trace, take your rubbish home or hold onto it until you find a bin. Please don’t throw it out of your car window. We picked up 30 bags of roadside rubbish during lockdown and sadly it’s starting to reappear on the verges 😦
Thanks for reading and please make sure to take care of our environment on your travels. Emily
Photos by Philip Yielder, Peter Upton, Abbie Cato and Emily Wilkins
Can you spot the differences between November and May in the photos below?
The fungi we found have all disappeared or dried up, but instead there’s lots of spring flowers. Can you spot primrose with yellow pimpernel, violet, dandelion, tormentil, bluebell, wood anemone and willow? Click on the pictures to zoom in.
There’s lots of fresh green leaves as well…beech and larch trees, spruce tree buds opening, ferns, young hazel tree, birch tree, rowan tree seedling, bilberry. Again, click on the pictures to zoom in.
It’s been a really dry spring. The burn beside the path has completely dried up.
The sphagnum moss which was so colourful in the autumn has dried out and turned pale, and all the water in the little pond below the fallen tree roots has gone, can you see the pondweed leaves sticking to the mud?
The puddles along the track where we saw lots of creatures have dried up, just last year’s cones now lying on the ground.
Some things have stayed the same though: our markers with painted numbers, the little bridge and evidence of deer!
We are looking for a volunteer assistant ranger for 3 months full time beginning early June. This is a great opportunity to develop skills and experience in nature conservation and rangering. The role involves assisting with varied tasks over a number of island sites, including delivery of education projects and public events programme, providing information to visitors, wildlife survey work, practical maintenance tasks. Accommodation and some travel costs will be covered.
You must show enthusiasm for wildlife and the great outdoors. Some knowledge/experience in the relevant field would be useful but more important is flexibility, good communication skills, an ability to work under your own initiative, and a desire to learn. You will need to be willing and able to work outside or inside in all weathers, including some lone working in rugged coastal terrain. Some weekend/evening hours will be required.
Any questions please contact:
Emily Wilkins firstname.lastname@example.org 01681 700659 07717581405
A full job description is available below.
You can also scroll back through the blog to read about the experiences of previous summer volunteers, Emilie in 2019, Georgia in 2018, Kate in 2017 and Daniel in 2016, for example:
We’re excited to tell you about 4 job vacancies related to our ranger service, the first 3 based here on the islands.
First up, there’s still time to get your application in for one of 2 seasonal ranger posts with our award-winning white-tailed sea eagle viewing project, Mull Eagle Watch:
Next, the National Trust for Scotland has an opportunity for a Visitor Services Assistant on the island of Staffa:
Also with the National Trust for Scotland, but based in Inverness, is the new post of Northwest Highlands Operations Manager, overseeing a range of beautiful places across the west coast and islands including some of the work of our ranger service here (on Iona and Burg), details of this should be on the NTS Vacancies page by the end of the week.
Working with our local primary schools has been a real highlight for the ranger service this autumn. Click here to see Ulva primary’s report of their Woodland Workshop with Jan.
Down on the Ross Emily has been helping Class 1 at Bunessan primary with their topic about designing a nature trail.
First some research on habitats and the wildlife living there:
Followed by a couple of visits to Tiroran Community Forest to test out the route of our new trail with help from Community Forester Philip Yielder who marked the route with posts.
The class produced their own maps, poetry and drawings which went into a leaflet and a beautiful wall display.
Finally it was opening day – the children gave a speech and guided their guests around. Well done everyone!
Soon you’ll be able to pick up a leaflet from the bridge next time you visit the forest and try the route for yourself – wellies recommended!
Also in the forest, the main Woollen Woods display has been taken down, but a few creatures made of natural wool have been moved to the Giant Heads area, see if you can spot them!
Meanwhile Bunessan’s afterschool nature club have been exploring colour and pattern in nature, playing some eco board games and learning about the night sky.
We seem to have escaped most of the floods and experienced a lot of dry sunny weather this autumn as these photos from Burg last week demonstrate:
Bright rowan berries, bracken changing colour…although mixed with a lovely splash of purple from scabious, knapweed and heather flowers, it definitely feels like autumn is approaching, especially with the wild weather we’ve been experiencing lately. Our recent guided walk to Shiaba discovered the burn (usually easily fordable) to be a raging torrent so we had to be content with viewing most of the buildings in the distance! Luckily as we stopped for lunch the clouds started to clear allowing views of Carsaig Arches and Colonsay too.
Here on Iona and Staffa we’ve just hosted the National Trust for Scotland’s footpath repair team, and also a hardy group of Thistle Camp workparty volunteers, who’ve been out in all weathers making improvements to our well-used paths. With tens of thousands of visitors a year our footpaths need constant maintenance to counteract the impact of all those feet. So enjoy our new stepping stones and a slightly less muddy experience next time you are walking to Columba’s Bay, the Hermit’s Cell or Staffa’s puffin colony! Thistle Campers also worked on repairs to drystone walls and collected rubbish from a number of Iona’s beaches. The footpath team will be back next spring when they will also be carrying out repair work to the landslide-affected path at Burg.
In my last blog post I told you about our first Nature Adventure Day along with Headland Explorations, well the programme continued with a group exploring St Martin’s Caves on Iona, foraging for seaweed and cooking it on a beach fire lit using flint and steel and natural tinder (dried bog cotton and grasses). We had seaweed soup, seaweed-flavoured popcorn, fried seaweed and a carragheen pudding! Thanks to Miek Zwamborn for sharing her expertise.
The last day involved an adventurous sail on Mark Jardine’s B.Marie, high winds causing us to abandon our original plans to travel around the south coast of the Ross of Mull for climbing and beach cleaning, in favour of heading around the north of Iona to sheltered Port Ban. Everyone enjoyed having a go at climbing and investigating the plant life of the bay with a game of wildflower name pictionary. Many thanks to the Dutch family from Erraid who kindly used their own boats to collect the beach rubbish from Traigh Gheal a few days later.
Other successful summer days included Woodland Tribe at Tiroran Community Forest where children and young people got to create their own adventure playground which should last up to 5 years. Feel free to use it next time you’re there, and if you haven’t already seen the Woollen Woods, most of it is still in place too. I’m now busy helping Bunessan Class 1 with their nature trail topic, along with Philip Yielder (Community Forester at Tiroran) so look out for a new trail to follow in the forest this autumn!
I also really enjoyed the opening celebrations for the Loch Pottie path, standing in the rain 10 minutes before the agreed time I was wondering whether anyone would turn up, but a last-minute rush saw over 100 people led by the pipe band and children on bikes all walking the path together to declare it open. It’s since been great to see it well-used and appreciated by everyone from visitors on an evening stroll, to locals walking their dogs and children cycling to the shop. Look out for new interpretation signage in due course.
The last of our wildlife surveys for the year saw me joined by some volunteers with a head for heights as we checked up on the spread of bracken at Burg and counted our population of the rare Iceland Purslane plant. Work also continues on the bothy renovations at Burg, and on the Fingal’s Cave walkway on Staffa which is nearing completion.
As some of you will be aware through our displays at the agricultural shows we were covering endangered species, one of which may well be YOUR ranger service. The Ranger Service is a partnership made of National Trust for Scotland (NTS), Forest and Land Scotland (FLS)and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and we are managed by Mull and Iona Community Trust. Unfortunately, FLS cease to fund us totally at the beginning of April next year and SNH have cut their support by 50% so our ranger team may well be under threat unless we find alternative funding. If you have time to drop us a supportive email (to email@example.com) about an event you have enjoyed, what your children thought about one of the school trips we have organised, the benefits of volunteering or the difference made by our co-ordination of community access projects, beach cleans or any other aspect of our work we’d be glad to hear from you as we can use any positive comments as evidence for potential funders! We will keep you up to date as things develop but any support for our service would be much appreciated.
thanks for reading,
They say that all good things must come to an end, and my summer volunteering with the Ranger Service is no exception. I can hardly believe it’s already been two months since I arrived on this beautiful island and I’ll soon be heading back to the mainland and home to Yorkshire.
My final week on Mull started at the Tiroran Community Woodland outreach day, where visitors ate delicious cakes while watching eagles and crossbills (so I’m told….) soaring over the trees. We held our own event, planned by yours truly, later in the week. Armed with jumbo pavement chalk, we invited anyone and everyone to come and decorate the newly completed Loch Pottie Path, which joins the villages of Fionnphort and Creich. It was great to see visiting children playing hopscotch just metres away from local poets who had written special pieces for the event.
We did a lot of survey work this week, too. Since June I’ve regularly been out to monitor a shag colony nesting on the cliffs of Iona and my final visit on Tuesday revealed two chicks I hadn’t seen previously. Good news for a colony that was completely washed away last year!
Towards the end of the week, Emily (Ranger for South Mull, Iona, Burg and Staffa) and I were fortunate enough to spend a morning with the exceptional botanist Lynne Farrell, who has scoured Mull (and various other islands) on a mission to record the plants that live there. What I lack in botanical skill I make up for in powers of observation: we found a total of 110 different species in the small area we surveyed, more than when Lynne surveyed the same plot over twenty years ago.
This week is a good representation of my time here; I don’t think many people will have had a summer as varied as mine. Assisting Emily, I’ve been everything from facepainter to wildlife tour guide to researcher to photographer to teaching assistant.
I’ve listened for corncrakes under a midnight sun, wild camped with the feral goats of Burg, stood top-deck on a tour boat looking for cliff-side nests and watched a sheepdog herd ducks at my first ever agricultural show.
I’ve surveyed more species than I can count, (including the endemic slender scotch burnet moth and the extremely rare Iceland purslane), and my plant ID repertoire has expanded from daisy or dandelion to include such things as selfheal, butterwort and northern marsh orchid. I’ve watched dolphins playing in the sound of Iona, photographed puffins crash landing on Staffa and laughed at my own naivety for thinking a buzzard could possibly be a sea eagle.
Outside of work I’ve explored the white sandy beaches of Ardalanish, Uisken and Kilvickeon, climbed Ben More, Mull’s only Munro, and eaten a life-changingly delicious cheesecake at Dervaig Artisan Bakery (not in the same day, though that would have been the perfect reward). I’ve also seen one or two absolutely stunning sunsets and views to islands I can barely point out on a map.
I’m sure I’ll be back, but for now I’ll bid a fond farewell to the island and its people. I’m particularly grateful to Emily for her patience, guidance and conversation, which has helped make this summer an unforgettable experience.