Conservation work is often an exercise in patience. RSPB Scotland's Jenny Tweedie shares a bit about the wonderful transformation story of one of our reserves.

Creating a nature reserve in less time than it took to write Lord of the Rings

One of the slightly frustrating things about conservation work is just how long everything seems to take. But that’s nature for you. If you plant a tree, it’s going to take a few decades to grow. Some people refer to it as cathedral thinking, harking back to the days when medieval masons would never have seen their beautiful carved columns and finials sitting in a finished cathedral. They just had to have faith that one day it would all be completed, and that their efforts would have made a difference.  

Some things are definitely worth the wait, but patience is a trait that people often struggle with. Tolkien wrote in one of his letters: “It is a curse having the epic temperament in an overcrowded age devoted to snappy bits!” That was in the 1940s. Now, his age of ‘snappy bits’ has developed into an age of social media and instant gratification, where even sitting down to read a whole blog is often too much of an effort, never mind making it through an epic novel. Waiting for a wood to grow, or for a habitat to transform, well that’s an entirely different level of patience.

Aerial image from 2014

The good news, however, is that it doesn’t always need to take a truly epic amount of time to achieve something significant in the world of conservation. It doesn’t even need to take the epic 12 years that it took Tolkien to write Lord of the Rings. Sometimes, you can make something pretty amazing happen in just nine. 

When I first visited the Crook of Baldoon near Wigtown in 2010, it was quite a dreary place. Set amidst the stunning backdrop of the Wigtown Bay Local Nature Reserve, the site consisted of an area of fairly dead-looking saltmarsh and several acres of young willow trees, tightly packed together and around 12 feet in height. This was a crop that had been planted for biomass fuel, but apart from the odd willow warbler, it wasn’t proving that great for the local wildlife. I remember there were a few skylarks around, the odd lapwing, lots of horseflies, and that was about it.

I’ve visited a few times in the years since, and I’ve followed the reports of all the work that’s been going on there. First the grazing regime was altered to allow more wildflowers to bloom on the merse, a few facilities went in for visitors: paths, a car park, signage. But the biggest thing that needed to happen was the removal of the willow, and that ended up taking two and half years: an epic task in itself.  

The last time I was there, they were just putting in the scrapes, re-landscaping the now bare fields to create pools and little islands to benefit all sorts of wildlife. It was a bit of a muddy mess, as that sort of work always is, but there already seemed to be more life about the place: whirling flocks of golden plover, and a huge murmuration of starlings dodging about to avoid the attacks from a peregrine.

Aerial image from 2015

That was about three years ago, and I didn’t really know what to expect when I went down there last week, on what turned out to be almost the 9th anniversary of the RSPB taking over ownership of the site.

The transformation was breathtaking. The place was hoaching with birds! Huge flocks of pink footed and barnacle geese, lapwings and redshanks calling all around, pintail ducks, herons, whooper swans, a cormorant, and best of all, from my point of view, loads of little egrets, a relative newcomer in Scotland, and not a species I’ve seen much of. The new scrapes were all now flooded, and the birds were moving around constantly between the saltmarsh and the pools, calling and making an incredible noise. Some, like the geese, will have been gearing up for the long journey to their spring breeding grounds, but some, like the lapwings, will hopefully stay on and make the Crook their home.

Crook Lagoon 2016

What’s been created at the Crook of Baldoon hasn’t happened overnight, and it’s not happened without a huge amount of work by the site’s dedicated staff and volunteers. But in just nine years, the realities of what can be achieved on what is only a small site, are quite extraordinary. And they’re not done yet. More habitat work is planned, which will attract even more wildlife. Maybe I’ll see a bearded tit when I’m down there next time, or a marsh harrier, or even a bittern.

Little Egret

Nature does like to take its time, and most conservation work will always have a whiff of the epic because of that. But what the Crook of Baldoon proves to me is that you don’t have to wait 50 or 100 years to make a difference and see genuine results. Get the groundwork right, and nature will gladly and (relatively) swiftly respond.

And as for Tolkien? Well, the epic temperament doesn’t seem to have done him a lot of harm either.   

Click the image below to see a video with the sound of all the birds at the reserve!

If you’d like to visit the Crook of Baldoon, there’s something to see all year round. There are few facilities on site, but the ponds are right beside the car park, so there’s no need to walk far to enjoy all the wildlife. There are also a couple of short trails. Paul, the warden, runs regular events throughout the year, so check the website to see what’s on Remember to pop in and visit the nearby Wood of Cree when you’re there!