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26 Nov 2021

A day in the life of a ... Conservation Manager

Written by Shaila Rao, Conservation Manager, Mar Lodge Estate
A woman stands on a heather-covered hillside strewn with boulders. Behind her is a deep wide glen and steep, snow-pocketed mountains. The sky is heavy.
Shaila in Coire Etchachan, scouting out the montane willow planting site in spring 2021.
In this series, we join colleagues from across the Trust for a behind-the-scenes glance at the important role they play in caring for our special places. Here we meet Shaila, who is part of the team at Mar Lodge Estate, and spends her days working to protect the UK’s largest NNR.

Every day, I appreciate how lucky I am to live and work at Mar Lodge Estate. It’s not a bad back garden to have! People often wonder what exactly I do – well, here is a typical fieldwork day:

Beep-beep, Beep-beep, Beep-beep ... Ugh. Off the alarm goes. I creak out of bed and stumble bleary-eyed downstairs. Ella and Calan are just finishing breakfast. As I sup my tea and shove some bread in the toaster, I can see out the window that it’s a beautiful morning. Low cloud hangs in the Dee valley; the rising sun casts light across the glen, picking out the drops of water clinging to the dewy grass and spider webs. We’re into early October and the days are getting shorter at Mar Lodge, with the glory of autumn now upon us. The birch and aspen trees are glowing gold, the rowan berries hang like bunches of jewels from the trees and, higher up, the autumn hues of deer grass have turned the hills a warm russet brown. At 7.15am the kids depart, my husband heads out with the dog and I pack a lunch and get ready for a day on the hills.

It’s not far to the office – all of 50 yards – but, believe it or not, it is still easy to be late! I am lucky to live on site at Mar Lodge with the spectacular 30,000ha estate as my back yard. I never get blasé about this and it was brought more sharply into focus for me during lockdown, seeing the lives of people trapped in city centres.

I stroll round to the office and resist the urge to switch on my computer. This would be fatal, leading me to get trapped inside by the never-ending flow of emails. Today, the sun is shining and we’re planning a long day of monitoring high in the mountains. If I leave the office late, we’ll be heading back in the dark. Andy (the seasonal ecologist) and I are off to Coire Etchachan to monitor some montane willow trees which were planted out in May this year. This monitoring is part of a conservation project we have underway to boost populations of two rare mountain willow species on the estate. The existing populations are very small and fragmented and no longer have the capability to reproduce and thus expand. By introducing additional plants, we’re increasing genetic diversity, bringing the populations to a point where they can reproduce successfully and expand, thus securing the future for these species on the estate.

This work – alongside the recovery of other species such as juniper, dwarf birch, Scots pine, birch and other willows through reduced grazing pressure – will contribute to restoring the special tree-line or montane woodland habitat, which is all but missing from Scotland.

Read more about the early stages of the willow recovery project

Andy chucks me the keys, we jump in the Land Rover and head off towards Derry Lodge, after which we are on foot. As we are driving, we have typical ‘ecologist’ conversation about how great the tree regeneration looks in Glen Lui, how beautiful the autumn colours are and how most of the birds have now left for winter. We ditch the Land Rover and set off on foot for the beautiful 1hr, 45 min walk up Glen Derry and into Coire Etchachan. We encounter two campfire sites within 15 minutes of walking and we stop to quickly clear them up. One can only despair at the people who have blatantly ignored the No Fires signs and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and have built a fire within the woodland and on peaty ground. Thankfully, they must have extinguished the fires properly and the pinewood lives to stand another day.

A bit further on, we see a flash of red and spot a flurry of crossbills as they move from tree to tree, feverishly prying open pine cones with their specialist beaks. The brightly coloured crossbills are common at Mar Lodge and can often be seen feeding at the tops of the old pine trees.

Slowly climbing, we reach Derry Dam and the whole of Glen Derry opens up in front of us with the dramatic cliffs of Coire Etchachan, our destination, now visible. Time is marching on and so we must hurry if we are to have enough time to complete our planned fieldwork. The trouble with ecologists is that they keep getting distracted by other things! Finally, we reach the small wooden bridge over the Etchachan burn, complete with its well-known rowan tree and push on to Hutchison Hut sitting in the spectacular amphitheatre of Coire Etchachan. Here we stop for a bite to eat and chat with a couple of other visitors to the bothy. Tales are shared of each other’s exploits and the men are interested to hear about our habitat restoration work in the coire and elsewhere on the estate.

Revived, we make the steep and sweaty climb up to 840m, where we planted out 800 downy and whortle-leaved willows earlier in the year. At first glance, we’re pleased to see the small trees still intact and generally looking good. These are precious trees and a lot of effort has gone into getting them into this remote and high altitude location. They have been grown on from seed collected two years ago from other remote willow populations on the estate. Methodically, we work our way around the 10% sample of trees which we individually marked in May shortly after planting. These are in groups of ten spread out over a large area; we have 15 groups in total to monitor. Andy and I work separately; we have found that at times this is more efficient. The ground is steep, loose, slimy and rough, so it’s more of a clamber and stumble than a stroll getting between the plots. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

These trees have been planted with no protection from hares and deer, so our main objective of this monitoring is to record whether the trees have been browsed and also what their survival post-planting is. We have never tried planting out young trees at this altitude before, so we’re not sure what to expect. This site was in part selected as there are few deer here, but we know that mountain hares are present and we also know that they are quite keen on willow trees! Some people might think this type of monitoring work could get boring after a while. However, we’ve invested so much in this project, it’s pioneering work for the Cairngorms and in such a remote and beautiful place – it can never get boring.

After a few hours with our heads down and focused on the job in hand, the monitoring is complete and Andy and I meet up, both with smiles on our faces. That can only mean one thing: the willows are looking good. Nearly all the trees are still alive and healthy, with some having put on good growth. Furthermore, the browsing is minimal, with only a few trees nipped by hares. This is great news but we don’t get too excited as we know there are riskier times ahead. Winter is the time when the trees are generally most at risk of browsing, as other plants have died back. We’re hopeful that, at this altitude, for much of the winter the planted willows will be protected by snow, but who knows with these unpredictable winters we are experiencing. When we return this time next year the fate of the trees will be revealed – hopefully we still have smiles on our faces then.

A mountain landscape in winter, covered in thick snow. A trail of footprints lead across the glen towards the summit.
Winter snow cover in Coire Etchachan

It’s not a bad spot for a quick cuppa and a biscuit before setting off for home. As we sit there taking in the view, a pair of golden eagles circle nonchalantly overhead before gliding effortlessly away. We shake our heads and smile as the eagles in this glen have been eluding everyone this year – typically they put in an appearance now after the breeding season is over!

It’s such a beautiful afternoon that we decide to return ‘over the top’, bypassing the summit of Derry Cairngorm and heading down the path onto Carn Crom. The views down into Glen Derry are stunning, with the river slithering like a snake through the old pines dotted on the glen floor. Off to the west, the dramatic skyline of Devil’s Point, Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak catches the late afternoon sun. Slowly descending, we enter the ascending army of little pines as they march up Carn Crom. It’s so exciting to enter scattered trees at over 600m altitude and feel like the woodland is finally making a recovery. It’s clearly on an upwards trajectory.

With tired legs, we drop into the granny pines and cross the bridge to meet the Land Rover at Derry Lodge. It’s a welcome sight as we are now quite weary after a long day. Rosy-cheeked, I struggle to keep awake as Andy drives us back to the office. We dump our field kit, look at the clock and then at our computers ... emails can wait until tomorrow.

A view looking across a vast expanse of lawn to Mar Lodge on a bright sunny day. The trees are green and beginning to turn into their autumn colours in some places. Tall mountains can be seen in the background.
Returning home to Mar Lodge

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