Apologies for the title, but I couldn’t resist. Anyone visiting the car park over the last few days will have noticed that we have some large machinery in a cordoned-off area. This is to allow the drilling of a borehole that will be used to provide water, enabling handwash basins and flushing toilets at both the Nature Centre and entrance kiosk. The work associated with getting running water to the centre will be taking place intermittently throughout the winter and at some points, we will have to cordon off areas or even close the car park completely. Access up to the Nature Centre will be affected too. We apologise for the inconvenience but remember that the Loch Mallachie car park and Two Lochs trail, plus the whole of the wider reserve, will still be accessible throughout the winter. Due to the current contractor availability and building supply issues, it is possible that these works will be split between this winter and next, but the Nature Centre will be open as usual next season.

So what’s happening?

In mid-November work will begin around putting a water treatment plant under the car park which will treat the wastewater to a specification which has been set by SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency). Our water technology consultants have been working closely with SEPA to arrive at the best possible solution for the needs of staff, visitors and the surrounding habitats. This water-treatment unit is identical to one installed in a sensitive site in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park where it has been working well. It contains four chambers that remove impurities from the water and treat it to safe specifications. The resulting clean water will soak away into the surrounding soil through a perforated pipe, which will ultimately run into Loch Garten. It is expected that the soakaway will allow all the clean water to run off before it enters the loch - the unit at Loch Lomond has no discharge at the end of the pipe and their soakaway pipe is considerably shorter than ours will be. The unit will be de-sludged annually by professional contractors.

Proper water toilets and hand-washing facilities will obviously be much more hygienic than the current set-up of composting toilets and hand-wipes, making the Nature Centre more accessible for visitors and staff. In addition, we are taking this opportunity to drastically improve our accessibility for some of the most vulnerable and are installing a Changing Places facility in the current female toilet. As well as an accessible toilet, this game-changing facility will have a changing bed, hoist and shower unit. It will be accessible to those with a Radar key when we are closed. We are also taking this opportunity to install a fully accessible toilet up at the Nature Centre. 

Since we opened as a visitor facility in the 1950s our centre and the surrounding forest have been largely inaccessible to some of society’s most vulnerable who struggle to access nature due to the lack of appropriate toileting facilities. We hope this improvement will encourage people with complex needs and their families to visit the Nature Centre and the surrounding forest. There is no such facility in a natural setting anywhere else in the Cairngorms National Park and we are incredibly excited to see what opportunities this creates for people with physical disabilities to access the amazing Caledonian pine forest.

In addition, the feedback we've had from female visitors confirms what we thought; at certain times the lack of running water is at best unpleasant, and at worst unhygienic. Visitors with small children tell a similar story, particularly those with children in nappies. Ultimately, running a visitor destination without running water is exceptionally challenging at the best of times, but particularly during a pandemic.

The recent redevelopment of the Nature Centre has brought many benefits, not just for visitors, but for staff too. We now have a heated and insulated office space with room for three desks, which can be used all year round. Running water is a basic requirement for a place of work and as we can now work there twelve months of the year having a proper toilet and hand-washing facilities has become essential. A staff toilet up at the centre will mean no more dashes down the track to use the facilities!

Our team are certainly pleased that they will no longer have to lug canisters of water into the centre each day to provide water for the visitor’s fresh coffee machine and the staff hot water bottles! We will also hopefully encourage people to refill their own water bottles at our site too.

The vision for Abernethy is far-reaching – our plans to restore natural processes and habitats across the reserve over the next 200 years are the epitome of forward-thinking and future-proofing - with the arrival of running water, our visitor and staff facilities at the Nature Centre are just catching up. The result of these works will be a greatly improved visitor experience, much-needed improvements to RSPB staff and volunteer working conditions and in the face of a pandemic, improved safety for everyone.  In addition to the water utility works we are taking the opportunity while the car park is being dug up to install electric vehicle charge (EVC) points to encourage more environmentally conscious travel.

We are grateful to the Cairngorms National Park Authority for their financial support in these improvements to accessibility at the Nature Centre.

One thing we can be sure of is that the vision will definitely smell better than it does at the moment.