Ahead of Volunteers Week next week (1-7 June), Genevieve Tompkins celebrates the remarkable volunteers of the Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms project in this blog.

At the heart of the Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms

The Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms (RIC) project aims to improve the conservation fortunes of six of the Cairngorms National Park’s rarest species. Now in its final year, with lockdown restrictions slowing survey work and a new project officer in post, we have moved into a very reflective period of the project. Developing novel survey techniques, finding several new sites for our “RIC six” species and making new scientific discoveries; this pioneering project has certainly had its fair share of success stories. But coming into RIC with fresh eyes, the thing which has really stood out for me is the knowledge, skill and unwavering dedication at its heart: the volunteers. 

group of volunteers

RIC Vols Curr Wood (c) Gabby Flinn

There are so many volunteers who deserve to be celebrated as part of this project, from “Kentish glory Queen” Mary Laing, who, in 2018, single-handedly found 8 new sites for the Kentish glory moth, to Helen Rowe, the Aberdeenshire Council Countryside Ranger who has been leading the charge for rare moths in Deeside.

But I’m going to focus on some of the stalwart crew at the eye of this storm of activity, our species champions. Becoming a species champion means taking on a whole new level of care for your chosen species and for our champions, nothing could be more important than the insects themselves. As Xander “Antboy” Johnston puts it: “without insects nothing would be here…insects are the foundation of the whole ecosystem”.

First moving to the Cairngorms 5 years ago, shining guest ant champions, Xander and his dad, Ross, loved the outdoors but weren’t yet part of the wildlife recording community. Their journey started at a ‘Nest Quest’ event: “We both loved it… and realised how much fun we were having. We do now look at things completely differently from what we used to”. Their story makes Ross and Xander ideal ambassadors for underappreciated invertebrates and the joy of wildlife recording. Xander is now a Cairngorms Nature Young Ambassador and RSPB Young Nature Champion, winning hearts and minds on behalf of invertebrates by appearing on national TV programmes like Springwatch and Countryfile, as well as through his own YouTube channel. Their new chapter involves representing the needs of invertebrates in the face of increasing pressure. Xander nicely sums up his volunteering work: “This makes me feel like I’m doing my part for the community and the environment”.

dark bordered beauty

Dark bordered beauty (c) Mary Laing

At the other end of the scale is “Cairngorms Legend” Stewart Taylor, dark bordered beauty moth champion and staunch supporter of local wildlife throughout his life and career. Stewart has a long history with the dark bordered beauty: “My earliest encounter with this moth was in June 2006 when, with Tom Prescott and others, we visited the aspen sucker site for the moth near Grantown.  Here we crawled on hands and knees through an area of aspen suckers trying to find day-resting caterpillars, with some success when two or three were found.” The knowledge he has developed on the moth since then, plus his encyclopaedic understanding of local habitats, has proved instrumental to our work for this now extremely rare moth.

Volunteers come to us from all walks of life, with the resulting range of skills and experiences being what makes them so valuable to the project. Pine hoverfly champion, Eileen Mathers, had very little experience with invertebrates before joining the team. However, with a background in scientific research, Eileen had the necessary skills to successfully turn her hand to the task of saving this iconic Scottish insect. She says of the pine hoverfly: “I found its lifestyle intriguing and was interested in the efforts to determine the environmental needs of the insect and in the captive breeding concepts to try to boost the populations. I was a scientist by trade before volunteering and understand the needs and processes involved in research, so becoming a champion for this species gave me the opportunity to help in the efforts to answer the many questions about the life of this rare insect.”

eileen with moth

Eileen with Kentish Glory (c) Gabby Flinn

A whole host of motivations bring volunteers to our door, from a love of the outdoors to a thirst for new knowledge and skills. For Peter Stronach, small scabious mining bee champion it was a fierce desire to protect the wildlife around him. Peter says: “I wanted to get involved with the project as these species are threatened here. Even though we live in the Cairngorms National Park, habitats for these species are constantly being degraded and destroyed and do not get protected by the planning system. Local grassroots activism is the only way to solve these issues, raising awareness in the local community, who are unaware of the value of that which is being lost.”

bee on flower

Small scabious mining bee (c) Peter Stronach.

These are the stories of just a few of our species champions. I could also have talked about Mich Green, our champion for Kentish glory who is currently working with local landowners to secure a home for this rare moth. Then there is Sarah Henshall, Adam Gilbert and Gus and Tessa Jones, all championing the northern silver stiletto fly and its vulnerable river shingle habitat.

Getting to know this project, and the people who define it, has taught me many things, but overarching it all is this: whoever you are, wherever you come from, everyone can make a difference and by working together we can make the biggest difference of all.

Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms

Find out more about the people behind the project by heading to the RIC-Cast podcast, available on soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/gabrielle-flinn

The Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms (RIC) partnership project, between RSPB, Buglife, Cairngorms National Park Authority, Butterfly Conservation and Scottish Natural Heritage, is working to improve the conservation fortunes of six of Britain’s rarest insects. To follow the project, you can find us on Facebook or Twitter.

In 2020, the project is financed by the Cairngorms National Park Authority and RSPB. Between 2017-2019, the project was part-financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community LEADER 2014-2020 programme.