RSPB Scotland offers internships designed to give a broad range of training and experience needed for a career in conservation. Intern Nicholas Thorsen shares his experience from reserves across the country.

My Internship with RSPB Scotland Central Highlands

For the past seven months I’ve been volunteering with RSPB Scotland as an intern for the Central Highlands reserves team in Inverness. I started the internship in March, and if you don’t like the cold this isn’t the job for you, as North Scotland can get a bit on the nippy side. But, it is also full of beautiful landscapes and plenty of wildlife, a winning combination that I couldn’t resist.

My internship began with one plant species that is causing problems around the Central Highlands Reserves and several other parts of the UK. None other than Spartina anglica. Spartina spreads very quickly, and if asked to describe it I’d have to agree with the first description I received, which is grass that looks a bit angry. Two reserves I work on, Nigg and Udale Bay on the Cromarty Firth, have Spartina, which is bad news for the many species that feed there as it can quickly colonise the intertidal habitats they use. So, my first main job as an intern was to map and then spray this pesky plant, and hopefully, when spraying season comes around next year, we’ll see a lot less of it.

View in front of Nigg Bay bird hide

Additionally, in my first few months, I got to work with black grouse, an iconic species that is of conservation concern in the UK. But, on Corrimony, an RSPB Scotland reserve west of Loch Ness, they’ve had the best year since this reserve was acquired back in 1997, with a population of 58 lekking males counted in 2018. To monitor these males, I got the chance to hike through the Scottish hills and look for grouse while the sun rose over the horizon. This was a truly memorable experience and there is nothing quite like cresting a ridge and spotting a lek of black grouse. Corrimony is a very special place and I highly recommend a visit.

One of my black grouse survey zones

As the year progressed I got the chance to work on Corrimony frequently, as it always has a ready supply of jobs to be done. I’ve carried out a huge variety of activities from deadwood creation and woodland bird surveys to raptor monitoring and habitat monitoring, which was when I discovered the first signs of wild boar on the reserve. There is so much more, however, I’ll keep it short and go on to my many other activities with RSPB Scotland.

Moving into May is when I began to monitor for mink on our Loch Ruthven reserve. This is perhaps one of our most important reserves, with one of the largest populations of breeding Slavonian grebes in the UK. As such, monitoring for mink is very important, as the loss of even a single egg or chick would be a huge blow to the already limited breeding population. It was a great moment during one of our visits when I was among the first people to see the grebes returning to the loch for the year. Halfway through May I also got the chance to take part in the monitoring of these grebes, which involved wading through cold water and reed beds to see how many birds were present. Nothing quite wakes you up like wading through a Scottish loch at 5am in mid-May.

One of the sedge beds at Loch Ruthven

This is perhaps one of my favourite RSPB Scotland reserves that make up the Central Highlands Reserves. Surrounding Loch Ruthven is a beautiful birch woodland, and I find it a very peaceful experience walking underneath the birch with the wind blowing through the leaves. Somehow, I often think of hair blowing in the wind when I see birch, but, feel free to make your own weird comparisons.

As time passed and June came around I got the chance to spend a week at an RSPB reserve of my choice and I chose Loch Garten. During this time, I got to work alongside the brilliant team that runs the Loch Garten Osprey Centre. This was a fantastic experience where I got to chat with members of the public about the local osprey EJ. I was also lucky enough to see crested tits during my time here when I was helping with a guided walk round the Two Lochs Trail.

One of my favourite Loch Garten lunch spots

More recently, I have begun work on a project surveying the glider poles at our RSPB reserve Culbin Sands. These cover around 11km of the 16km reserve, many towering over 5 meters. These were planted in the ground during WWII and they provide a haunting mirror back to the days when invasion was a real possibility. With over 2000 posts found so far, their job was to prevent enemy gliders landing on the flat expanse of beach and marsh, and I highly recommend a visit to see them for yourself.

This internship has been an awesome experience for me and is the perfect springboard for someone wishing to start a career in conservation. It’s also been a great way for me to expand my knowledge of the work RSPB Scotland is doing in the North of Scotland, and I’ve had the chance to visit many of the reserves here. Forsinard, an enormous bog-dominated reserve was one I particularly enjoyed whenever I got the chance to visit. Visiting places like these I’ve been able to talk to many like-minded individuals and it’s really helped reinforce my motivation to work in the conservation sector. It’s emphasised to me the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to get habitats to the conditions they’re in today. It’s also helped me truly appreciate what we have here in Scotland and I’m very excited for the future.

Pottering up the Forsinard viewing tower

Applications are now open for our 2019 internship opportunities. We are looking for interns to work in the Central Highlands and Loch of Strathbeg. If you are interested in an internship with us, please visit

  • I enjoyed reading your article, Nick. I am one of the part-time volunteers at Loch Ruthven and share your feelings about the birch wood surrounding the loch. I found it very inspiring even when I went there early on a Monday morning. Not as early as 5am though.  Pamela Graham

  • Many thanks for this post. I'm rather too old to apply for an internship, but it was an excellent read. I agree that the North of Scotland is challenging in terms of it's weather, but there are other rewards, as I'm sure you have found.