From ants to awards, Cairngorms nature young ambassador and Nature of Scotland Young Nature Champion Award winner Xander Johnston talks about his last year of volunteering.

A year in the life of our Young Nature Champion

As this years invertebrate surveying comes to an end, and the glitz and glamour of a recent awards ceremony start to fade (well, just a little), Xander reflects on what has turned out to be a pretty amazing twelve months.

This was year two of Xander being one of the many amazing volunteers, including those from the Highland Biological Recording Group, who make the Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms (RIC) programme possible. Now fully trained in identifying all six rare invertebrates within the RIC project, and with his endless passion for ants, the first survey of 2018 began on a cold Saturday morning in late February. The task was to perform a wood ant survey in Laggan. It became an adventure of crossing rivers, climbing deer fences and being knee deep in a bog! It was fair to say the surveying was well and truly underway. As the weather improved, the calendar quickly filled up with survey weekends and evenings based on the RIC 6 activity.

When asked about the highlights of his year Xander said:

 “Through the conservation work I have been doing, I have met loads of really interesting and friendly people who have amazing amounts of knowledge about the natural world, like Hayley Wiswell and Gabrielle Flinn, which has been very inspiring to me. There are so many highlights to choose from, but I enjoyed the time spent this year searching for moths, especially the Kentish Glory and Dark Bordered Beauty. Until now, I had spent most of my time searching for ground invertebrates, and adding in the challenge of flying invertebrates made the search for these very exciting.

I got to work with Dr Tom Prescot from Butterfly Conservation Scotland, one of the five partners involved in the RIC project. The cool thing about the moth trapping was that it was done at night, meaning I got to stay up late and ended up spending the night wild camping with my dad in the area, so I could be up early enough to count the moths before they started to fly away. We found a total of 35 species of moth in one night including 6 male and 1 female Kentish glory.

Until I took part in the survey, I never knew how many beautiful moths there were flying about. There are around 1300 species of moths in Scotland and only 34 species of butterfly, amazing huh? Finding the small scabious mining bee was also cool, especially as we found some new habitats this year just outside Aviemore where I live, and this in the same area as we found my favourite of the RIC insects, the shining guest ant.”

Throughout the year, Xander has also been adding to his YouTube channel with short videos on the animals he has been surveying, as well as a video from his visit to the RSPB osprey centre in Abernethy.   

As autumn approached, news came in that Xander had been nominated for the ‘Young Nature Champion award’ as part of the RSPB Nature of Scotland awards.  This category was introduced to celebrate the year of the young people.He was delighted to have been shortlisted for the category - or as Xander would say “it’s awesome”. As the awards night approached the excitement levels were turned up to 11!

Once news spread of his nomination, Xander was featured in the local paper and invited onto the local radio station where he shared his exciting news and spoke about the important work that the RIC project was doing.

Everything was set for a fun (and slightly nervous) evening. Around 350 people attended the awards, many of whom were those nominated over the ten categories.

“It was an honour to be in the room with so many important people, and for me to be part of this was out of this world.

I was so nervous as they read out the names of the finalists in the Young Nature Champion category, and couldn’t believe it when they announced my name as the winner! I don’t think it had sunk in that it was actually me, the winner, until my mum and dad pointed out that I was supposed to go up on to the stage to collect my award .

It was such an amazing night and I loved every minute of it, everyone was so nice congratulating me, I felt like a superstar.

I would just like to add a big thank you to my dad who has been really supportive and been out with me on every survey no matter what the weather, I think he really enjoys it too! And I would also like to thank EVERYONE that I’ve spent time with this year as part of the project, especially Gabrielle Flinn and everyone at Cairngorms Nature and RSPB. I can’t wait until 2019 so I can get out surveying again.”

I hope Xander’s story has inspired you to take part in the 2019 RIC surveying.  Come and join the important work that is being done by all of the amazing volunteers and learn lots of interesting facts about rare invertebrates. If you would like more information on the project, please contact Gabrielle Flinn on

Keep an eye out for Xander appearing on Countryfile on Sunday 16 December as he shares lots of fun information about the Pine hoverfly, one of the RIC 6!

Image Credit: Ross Johnston