Hi everyone, yes, I do still work here! It’s not often that I get let out of the office (Fergus has me well-trained) but we like to mix it up little every now and then, so here’s my first blog for a long while…

I hope you are all doing well and gearing up for a crisp winter and some festivities. I can’t believe it’s nearly December already and I’m sure it’s a sign of my advancing years that the months and weeks just seem to zip by in a flash. Despite it being the ‘off-season’, things never seem to wind down here at Abernethy and this winter is no exception, which brings me to today’s exciting news! Drumroll please! We’ve been biting our tongues for months while the final details have been ironed out, but we can finally reveal that we have been successful in attracting a pot of funding from Europe, which amounts to the biggest investment in the visitor facilities at Loch Garten since the present centre was built, twenty years ago.

The funding is coming from the European Structural Funds and will run for one year, helping us deliver a project we have called Wildlife Watch Abernethy.  We are incredibly excited (not to mention grateful!) to have been given this opportunity. The European Structural Funds support new opportunities to promote the outstanding scenery, wildlife and culture of the Highlands and Islands in ways which support inclusive and sustainable economic growth – we feel this describes us and Wildlife Watch Abernethy to a tee!

There are many elements to Wildlife Watch Abernethy, but the main differences visitors to Loch Garten will notice will be an accessible for all, open-plan centre, including a new entrance (with a glazed, easy-open, push-button electric door we can keep closed!), more glazing (more light and heat in the centre!), an outside decking area and improved interpretation telling the wider story of the forest, including some of the cultural history as well as, of course, the osprey story. The installation of glazing and a new entrance will all help with heat retention and increase the natural light within the centre, and these in turn will enable us to extend the opening season beyond the current five months to seven months in 2020 and eight months thereafter. Out of season, the centre is becoming more and more popular, and this extended opening season will greatly enhance our visitors’ experience and enable us to reach wider audiences and more people with our conservation messages. These improvements will allow us to set the centre at the heart of Abernethy, to really showcase what an amazing reserve this is and set it in the context of nature conservation in the Cairngorms.

Away from the centre, there will also be some interpretation on the Big Pines and Two Lochs trails, meaning visitors will be able to get more from their visit even if they don’t actually come to the centre. This interpretation will be in keeping with the natural forest environment with the aim of enhancing understanding, not detracting from the natural wonder of the Caledonian forest. Not to be left out, the carpark is also getting a refurbishment, with slightly increased capacity and all spaces being marked up to facilitate more orderly parking.

This very welcome European funding is also enabling us to create three new paid positions for the project: a full-time, twelve-month contract Project Officer, who will be responsible for project reporting, monitoring, evaluation and claims (among other things!); a full-time, twelve-month contract Inclusive Tourism Development Officer, who will be charged with developing relationships and enabling visits to the centre from under-represented groups – people who would really get extra benefit from a nature experience; and a full-time, eight-month, Visitor Experience Officer, to be part of the team delivering a fantastic nature experience to our visitors. These jobs will be advertised on the RSPB website, on social media and in the local press, amongst other places, so please keep a look-out and pass on the details to anyone you know who may be interested.

So, the times they are a changing, and to be honest, it’s long overdue. We could quite justifiably be accused of not having kept up with the times at all. Sixty years ago, we were incredibly innovative and brave when we opened up the nest of the only pair of breeding ospreys in the UK and showed the world how ecotourism and bird conservation could successfully go hand-in-hand, and thereby played an instrumental part in securing the future of everyone’s favourite fish-eating bird of prey, not just in Scotland, but in England and Wales as well. In those days the RSPB had no actual landholding here (the area around Loch Garten was part of the Seafield Estate), and it wasn’t until the 1970s that we started to invest in acquiring land for the sole purpose of creating and maintaining a nature reserve. It was the area around Loch Garten that was first bought from Seafield Estate – a tiny patch of land at 614 hectares (just over 6 square kilometres), focussing on the ospreys of course. Over the years and with the support of various funders and many, many generous individuals, that small nature reserve has expanded to be nearly 140 square kilometres, making it the RSPB’s second largest nature reserve (surpassed only by Forsinard Flows in Sutherland). It has become a nature reserve of superlatives – containing the largest remnant of the once Great Wood of Caledon; the UK’s second highest peak amidst the country’s only example of sub-Arctic montane plateau; the UK’s most pristine rivers and lochs; carbon-holding, peat-rich bogs and sweeping moorland. It contains around 5,000 species, making it one of the RSPB’s most diverse nature reserves and of those 5,000 species, approximately 20% are rare or threatened, making Abernethy reserve THE most important reserve the RSPB owns or manages in terms of saving nature priorities. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, we’re part of the most ambitious landscape-scale conservation partnership project in the UK – Cairngorms Connect – which aims to restore naturally functioning eco-systems and habitats across the partnership area of 600 square kilometres. It’s an incredibly ambitious vision and one which offers real hope to our increasingly embattled natural world and ultimately, offers hope to us too. That little bird sanctuary protecting ospreys in the forest, became a huge forest sanctuary protecting everything within its branches and beyond.

Which brings me to the last piece of the jigsaw, the name of the centre. From tiny acorns, mighty oak trees grow (so annoying that this oft-quoted saying doesn’t celebrate the Scots pine instead!), and I think it’s fair to say that from the tiny acorn of a caravan in the forest in 1959, from where visitors first set eyes on breeding UK ospreys, a huge oak tree has grown and spread across the UK. The osprey is an enormously successful conservation story and we are incredibly proud of the part Loch Garten has played in that story, but there is now a much bigger story to tell at Loch Garten and Abernethy. With 5,000 species here, and with the multitude of threats facing our natural world, it makes no sense whatsoever to focus on just one species (who are actually doing pretty well, thank you very much!). So, the decision has been deliberated and cogitated over for some years now, but thanks to this European Union funding, we are finally in the position to rename the centre to reflect a much wider story. From now on, the centre formerly known as The Loch Garten Osprey Centre will be known as The Loch Garten Nature Centre – a subtle change, but one which reflects the experience our visitors will get here and the variety of stories we have to tell. Of course, as long as the ospreys return to their ancestral home, they will be the stars of the show…the icing on the cake…the crowning glory…the feather in our cap…the cherry on top…even la pièce de résistance (very European!), if you will, but as we all know, even without ospreys, the forest and Abernethy reserve has a lot to say.   

So, exciting times ahead. I’m not going to lie, there’ll be challenges along the way too, but it’ll all be worth it in the end. This funding from the European Union is going to be a game-changer for Loch Garten, ensuring we can continue to deliver not only a great nature experience for our visitors, but also to deliver on building support for nature conservation and that can only be a good thing.

Unfortunately, due to the work going on in the centre, the electrics will have to be switched off and the cabling will need to be re-routed and re-housed. It is with regret that this means we will have to turn off our feeder camera for the foreseeable future. I don’t want to give you a date when it’ll come back on, because as we all know, building projects never run to schedule, and I don’t want to disappoint you, but please believe me when I say that all the stops will be out to ensure the disruption caused is as minimal as possible. Needless to say we will be putting the cameras back on the osprey nest at the beginning of spring, and will reconnect them to the internet as soon as we possibly can, hopefully before the ospreys return, but again, I have no crystal ball and I cannot promise you a date when this will happen. Please bear with us while we do everything we can to make this process as smooth as possible.

In the meantime, Fergus has been researching other webcams to tempt you over the winter, and has discovered the most amazing feeder camera from Estonia, in a town called Makov. You can find it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOsXWkp1_BM They might not get crested tits, but there are tussles between jays and woodpeckers and a myriad of small birds to pique your interest! I’m already hooked!

We’ll keep you updated with progress on the project through the winter before the big reveal next season. It’s going to be busy, of that there’s no doubt, but as the saying goes, no pain, no gain. And if anywhere deserves a bit of TLC, it’s LG, after all, that’s why we’re all here.