Would you like to work with us on the lovely island of Staffa for a few months this year? Find job description and application form here.
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!
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.
…and there’s lots of new and exciting things to tell you about!
Lizzy Grieve has started as our seasonal ranger at the eagle hide, and you can read more about what’s happening over on the Mull Eagle Watch blog.
Next week Peter Upton takes up the role of Visitor Services Assistant for the island of Staffa for four months so look out for him if you’re over there this year. I’ve been getting the island ready for the season with some beachcleaning, infrastructure checks and our first seabird count of the year, black guillemots. Thanks to Miek Zwamborn and Rutger Emmelkamp for their help and for the photos below. Please note that there is still no access to Fingal’s cave while we continue to repair storm damage to the walkway.
Over at Burg, there is still a landslide blocking the path to the fossil tree. It’s a lovely walk, even if you turn back at this point you’ll still get a flavour of the coastline with its flowery slopes, and chance to spot eagles and otters. If planning to venture onto the beach and around below the landslide to rejoin the path, please take extreme care and judge for yourself the risk of more material falling from above.
Most exciting for the Fionnphort area as work has started on our new path to Creich hall after years of hard work and fundraising by the steering group. It will make a safe off-road walking and cycling option for local journeys, and form part of several long-distance routes. Very well done everyone, can’t wait to start using it for ranger events!
I’ve been busy with sessions for both Bunessan and Iona primary schools recently. The older class from Iona carried out a study of the River Coladoir on a misty March day. Bunessan nursery children visited Tiroran Community Forest to explore and learn about baby animals including eagle chicks.
We are looking forward to our Woollen Woods event at the forest, come along to celebrate the launch on Sunday 19th May or drop in for a walk anytime over the summer to spot the creatures on display. This project has really caught people’s imaginations and we’ve loved receiving everyone’s creations, thanks to everyone who has contributed so far!
Traffic is building up again on our island roads, so if you’re not used to single track roads with passing places, please make sure you take time to watch this video before you visit and ensure stress-free driving for everyone!
Likewise please take care if visiting with your dog, especially at this time of year when lambs and ground-nesting birds are everywhere. Make sure you keep your dog under close control and follow any local signage.
It’s also time for our events programme to get going again. While a day of sudden bad weather cancelled my attempt at an Iona birdsong walk, Jan had better luck the following week and a lovely day with the Glengorm ranger at their Easter event.
Coming up we have a free guided walk to the mysterious Scoor Cave on 8th May in return for helping out with a beachclean as the gully there really funnels in debris off the sea. You can join Jan on the lovely island of Ulva on the 15th May or come to Iona to learn about wildflowers on the 22nd. Keep an eye on the events page for the full programme coming soon and we look forward to seeing you all at some point this summer!
Snowdrops, daffodils and singing song thrushes, it must be true! Time to think about the season ahead. We’re recruiting for 2 more summer posts, one paid and one voluntary, see below for details.
One day at the end of January, we woke up to proper snow, unusual for here.
It doesn’t hang around for long though, here’s the same view later in the day.
There was even snow on the beach!
Can you spot who’s been out and about here?
A few days later it had mostly disappeared, and we had a perfect sunny day for a little gathering to say thank you to a few of the lovely volunteers who’ve helped us out over the last year.
If you think you might like to join them, we are recruiting for a full-time Volunteer Assistant Ranger for 3 months this summer.
This is a great opportunity to develop skills and experience in nature conservation and rangering. The role is based in Bunessan and involves assisting with varied tasks over a number of island sites including Iona and Staffa. Tasks will include wildlife survey work, delivery of education projects and public events programme, providing information to visitors, practical maintenance. 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 inside or outside in all weathers, including some lone working in rugged coastal terrain. Some weekend/evening hours will be required.
Closing date: 9am Monday 8th April Interview date: week of 29th April
For more details and an application form, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org (no CVs please)
We are also recruiting for a (paid) Visitor Services Assistant for the island of Staffa, again feel free to contact me if you’d like more details. Application form and job description can now be downloaded directly from the NTS Vacancies page here: https://www.nts.org.uk/charity/Vacancies/ Closing date is 22nd March.
Finally, check out our Facebook page to see some of the creatures being sent to us for Tiroran Woollen Woods! There’s still plenty of time to join in as deadline for receiving your creations is the end of April.
Thanks for reading!
Another update from us here on the Ross, but also a fond farewell from me as my time on the island volunteering with the Ranger Service draws to a close – what a summer it’s been! Some fantastic wildlife encounters and successful events along with unbelievable weather for the first few weeks of my stay have definitely made this a summer to remember.
It’s been great to experience such a wide range of wildlife survey techniques in some amazing locations – from monitoring Storm Petrel chicks on Staffa to surveying plants under the dramatic cliffs of Burg, it’s sometimes easy to forget that this is an actual day job! A couple of times this summer Emily and I have been helping Lynne Farrell, the county recorder for the Botanical Society of the British Isles, update her plant records – most recently on Burg coinciding with our own plant survey, and earlier in the season we were lucky enough to go out to Little Colonsay on Mark Jardine’s boat. Here we saw (and learnt) loads of interesting wildflower species, including the vibrant Bloody Cranesbill.
We’ve also had a couple of successful events recently – Abbie, who was doing summer work experience with us, held a survival skills event at Tiroran forest which included building a rather impressive den and then foraging for plants to make tea out of at the end. A great day had by all, even if the fire took a few valiant attempts to get going! The next week I was back at Tiroran leading an Eagle Hide walk, where we had nice views of a white-tailed eagle soaring over the treetops in the distance. I also organised and lead my own event recently – a drizzly yet interesting morning on Uisken beach exploring the rockpools and the beach, finding lots of cool species including breadcrumb sponge and by-the-wind sailors.
In mid-July I went to work with the NTS ranger team at Ben Lawers NNR for a couple of weeks, a very different landscape to what I’m used to on Mull. Here I got to experience some of the more land management perspectives of rangering including bracken bashing, tree planting with an NTS Trailblazer camp and path maintenance. The weekend that I arrived coincided with the launch of Chris Packham’s Bioblitz campaign – the team at Ben Lawers took on the challenge of 24 hours of biological recording, and we were the first site for Chris Packham and his team to visit, resulting in a very long but enjoyable day out recording on the hill. Being at Ben Lawers was great to experience working in a team of rangers, and my thanks go out to team for making me feel so welcome there.
And finally, how can I not talk about some wildlife encounters whilst I’ve been here on Mull? You will have read my previous blog post about the evening trip to Staffa and the multitude of basking sharks, which still is a massive highlight for me, but it’s been a great few months overall for wildlife. Recently Emily and I were out on top of the cliffs at Burg, just walking to our National Plant Monitoring Scheme plots, when a family of golden eagles casually cruised by at eye-level. What a treat! By far the best Goldie sightings I’ve ever had. Along with that, I just can’t tire of seeing white-tailed eagles – looking up to the sky and seeing this unmistakeable ‘flying barn door’ is such a fantastic privilege.
Somehow, I managed to go the whole of June and July without seeing an otter, on the coastline that is supposedly so famous for otters, and I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about. However, when my boyfriend and parents were over visiting a couple of weeks ago, an otter conveniently showed it’s face and allowed us to watch roll about preening in the seaweed. And typically, I continued to see another 2 otters in that same week!
Along with the west-coast signature eagles and otters, this summer has been great for hen harrier sightings and lots of interesting moths and butterflies. I’ve also learnt loads of wildflowers – Emily has put up with my consistent pointing and saying “ooh what’s that?” for the last few months, so for that I’m very grateful for her patience!
Overall, volunteering with the ranger service has been such a valuable experience, and I’m so thankful for being given this opportunity. I’ve learned a countless number of new skills, met some great people and seen some fantastic wildlife.
I’m going to miss this place far too much, so I’m sure Mull will see me again soon!
With the busier season well and truly underway it’s time to show you a snapshot of what’s been happening down the Ross and on Iona, Burg and Staffa…
Bunessan afterschool nature club continued their investigation of forests – analysing owl pellets found beneath trees at Achaban House (thanks Matt Oliver!) and finding evidence of all sorts of creatures including mice and voles. They also made posters to say thank-you to trees for all they provide including habitats, fruit, shade and a place to play!
Also on an educational theme, I was excited to collect a box of the beautiful ‘Lost Words’ books for distribution to Mull, Iona and Tiree schools after Jane Beaton’s crowdfunder campaign raised enough money to provide a copy to every school in Scotland! I’ve enjoyed giving these out – and if you haven’t received your copy yet it will be on its way soon! Looking forward to making use of it to counteract the nature words disappearing from children’s dictionaries. More information here: https://www.johnmuirtrust.org/initiatives/the-lost-words
I spent a lovely day in the company of several visiting German ladies, walking near Lochbuie – we were lucky enough to see both a golden eagle and a sea eagle along with a cuckoo flying, but the hoped-for dolphins remained elusive!
I’ve enjoyed hosting my colleague Andrew Warwick for a week of renovations at Burg bothy, it’s looking so much better already so huge thanks to him and the volunteers who helped too! Also thanks to the Argyll Members’ Group of the National Trust for Scotland whose generous donation paid for materials. Still quite a bit of work to do before it’s usable again though.
Making the most of some spectacular sunny days amongst the showers, volunteer Terry Ward and I spent a night on Staffa to complete a dawn survey of its black guillemot population the next day…his own account of the trip follows in green text along with some of his great photos!
Emily picked the best two days in April to do the black guillemot survey on Staffa – calm seas and clear blue skies. We set out on the 2pm boat on Friday afternoon from Fionnphort and had an uneventful crossing over the 12km to Staffa.
On arrival we popped quickly down to the entrance to Fingal’s cave to inspect the warning signs which have been installed after some of the footpath was washed away in the winter storms. We established that some adjustments would be necessary and added the job to the ‘to do’ list for our time on the island.
We headed back to the steps and carried our camping gear up to the cliff top. Once I’d got my breath back we headed over and down to Port an Fhasgaidh and dumped the gear at our ‘campsite’ near the rocky beach. There is a small spring here and some almost flat grassy ground for pitching tents, plus a fabulous view of sea cliffs and caves, and birds.
The first job was litter picking – Staffa picks up its fair share of the plastic rubbish that has been in the news so much recently. We swept over the accessible bays in the middle of the island and filled around 8 bin bags. We could have filled dozens more if we could get into the appropriately named Float Cave – but this is accessible only by abseiling, or by boat.
Returning to our campsite we set up tents, after some careful searching and testing of potential pitches. Emily has a very practical method of testing a likely spot by lying down on it, to find any hidden bumps and lumps in the grass. The spot I chose ended up being quite near a cliff edge, which I regretted when I woke at 3am and had to leave the tent to heed a call of nature.
Once the tents were up we headed over to the east side of the island for tea. There is an old pink buoy on a fence post which marks the best spot for watching the puffins. Emily broke out her trusted Trangia camping stove and cooked up a wonderful vegetable couscous. I provided wagon-wheels and chocolate raisins. After this we walked the coast up to the north end of the island rehearsing the route for the following morning’s survey.
One of the things I wanted to do on Staffa was search for signs of otters so I was very pleased to find otter spraint mounds around some fresh water pools. On returning to base Emily spotted an otter trail and a series of spraint mounds including one right next to her tent! How did we not see that earlier …? See if you can spot the otter trail and spraint mound in the photo below.
I was glad to get up at 5am to start the survey. Despite being late April it was a cold night and I now realize I need a warmer sleeping bag! We walked the island from south to north, Emily up the west coast and myself up the east. I was a bit nervous (thinking of last year’s feral goat survey at Burg where I counted a grand total of zero) but once I saw a pair of black guillemots very close to shore at the pier I got into the swing of it. All the birds we saw were already on the water – so obviously they had made an even earlier start then we had.
A few things make the survey quite tricky – the birds move so you have to move briskly and take care not to double count, and also some of the birds were 50-100m out to sea so binoculars were needed to distinguish the puffins from the black guillemots. Emily counted more birds than I did – but she reassured me that was what she expected so hopefully I was reasonably accurate for a first timer.
We returned to the campsite, via the source of the campsite spring. We cleared the filter bucket of algae and slime – a lovely job which left us filthy up to the elbows.
After breakfast there was time to watch the black guillemots and shags flying back and forth from the nearby sea cliffs.
A couple of quick jobs to finish – reattaching the warning signs at the entrance to Fingal’s Cave and carrying the bags of rubbish back to the pier – then it was back to Fionnphort on the top deck of the Staffa tours boat.
At the start of May I was lucky enough to spend a few days amongst the wide open spaces of Tiree visiting the Tiree Trust and ranger Stephanie Cope who used to be part of our team here on Mull, and also John Bowler and his RSPB colleagues. A very useful visit to share ideas and have a look at corncrake conservation and habitat management, carparking and signage, restoration of machair erosion, and visit the Treshnish Isles exhibition at Hynish and of course Tilly the community wind turbine! Many thanks to Steph and John (and to Sarah Slorach for the photos).
Hello from the snow-free Ross of Mull! While much of the mainland was buried under snow drifts, here we saw hardly a snowflake apart from on the hills, although it was very cold and dry in that harsh east wind. Spray from Burg’s waterfalls froze solid on the cliffs, and in Bunessan even the beach was frozen at low tide!
We haven’t escaped winter storm damage though. Unfortunately part of the walkway into Fingal’s Cave on Staffa has been washed away. Wave erosion formed the island’s famous caves and is an ongoing process, as water pressure acts on the cracks between the basalt columns. This means that there is currently no access to Fingal’s cave on foot, although it can still be viewed from a boat. We have a team of specialist engineers working on a solution, and meanwhile the rest of the island including the puffin colony remains accessible.
Other winter tasks include regular checks on our visitor counters and infrastructure such as the ladder at Burg. It means carrying a laptop to some out-of-the-way places, but a good reason for a walk on a bright winter day. Thanks to Terry Ward for the photos.
Now that birdsong and catkins are giving hints of spring, afterschool nature clubs have restarted. This term involves activities related to forests, investigating trees and the wildlife that lives amongst them. Last week we made some woolly flowers for an installation at Tiroran Community Forest later this month. (It was also World Book Day which explains the costumes and face paint!) Well done to Monica Haddock for organising this. If it goes well we may consider a full Woollen Woods experience for gala fortnight, asking folk to make all sorts of woodland plants and creatures for display. Meanwhile, come along and picnic amongst the woollen meadow on Saturday 24th March!
There’s still time to apply for our summer volunteer assistant ranger position, as the closing date is Wednesday 14th March at 9am. See previous blog post for details.