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28 Jun 2021

A day in the life of a ... Maintenance Worker

Written by Aidan Bell
A smiling man wearing a navy National Trust for Scotland t-shirt and red ear protectors holds up a large John Deere lawn mower hopper. He is tipping grass cuttings onto a large pile.
Aidan Bell seen here at Inverewe Garden, after mowing one of the many lawns!
Maintenance Worker Aidan talks us through his wide-ranging responsibilities caring for the 850ha estate at Inverewe as well as Scotland’s smallest, but no less spectacular, National Nature Reserve at Corrieshalloch Gorge.

My name is Aidan Bell and I joined what was then the estate team at Inverewe in 2014, having previously worked for the Forestry Commission, English Heritage and the National Trust.

Inverewe can be envisaged as concentric circles: the garden and the house sit at the centre, surrounded by the shelterbelt, and then the wider 112ha forest and 850ha estate extend beyond that. The estate lies at the head of Loch Ewe in a Marine Protected Area and has nearly 5 miles of coastline. Consequently, there is a vast array of wildlife, with habitats literally from sea to sky. Most notable are the ‘Big 5’ of Scotland’s wildlife – red squirrels, red deer, otters, harbour seals and golden eagles – but there are so many more species than can be recounted here! Inverewe Estate is also a tapestry landscape of fascinating archaeology, with evidence dating from the Bronze Age to the Second World War.

Corrieshalloch Gorge is really a hidden gem, which is easy to pass unnoticed! It can be fully appreciated from the Victorian suspension bridge high over the gorge, which is 200ft/60m deep and only 10m wide at its narrowest point. This is the most spectacular box canyon in Britain, created by glacial meltwater and natural faults in the mylonite bedrock. The depth of the gorge creates a microclimate where mosses and ferns are abundant.

My job over both properties can be broadly divided into three categories: conservation, recreation and maintaining a productive landscape.

  • Conservation work includes planning and leading volunteer groups; wildlife monitoring such as at the heronry in the garden or conducting bat surveys in the landscape; woodland and habitat management; fencing; and drystone walling.
  • Recreation involves anything associated with welcoming our visitors, from maintaining the car park for our visitors’ first and last impressions of Inverewe, to footpath repairs, signage, guided walks and writing content for both properties’ websites.
  • A productive landscape is important to show that the estate is an asset that can work for the benefit of both wildlife and people. My work includes organising silage sales from the inby fields as well as timber from the sawmill or harvesting operations.
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“I take a long-term view to estate management; as a steward of this landscape, the decisions I make today will affect the options available to someone else in the future. ”
Aidan Bell

Although I work mainly by myself across both sites, I am part of the wider team with my colleagues at Inverewe. I also collaborate a lot with people like Rob Dewar (Natural Heritage Advisor) and Alan Barrow (Surveyor) to deliver a range of work, from wildlife monitoring and invasive species management, to updating the forest plan and setting up a large timber harvesting programme. I enjoy working with colleagues across the Trust. It can be very easy to become insular in your own patch, but as the Trust has around 100 properties all across Scotland, it’s helpful and encouraging to compare notes with others, who are often dealing with similar issues and are happy to share advice.

A smiling man puts a large stone into the correct place on top of a drystone wall. He is wearing a navy fleece and grey work gloves.
Aidan repairing a drystone wall – one of the skills he demonstrates to volunteers.

Other aspects of my role involve working with people externally, such as the consulting engineer for the Victorian suspension bridge at Corrieshalloch, the local deer management group and the James Hutton Institute with their Scots pine research plot that we host on the estate.

My role has the enjoyable benefit that no two days are the same – it would be tricky to fit it all into one day, so here is an overview of some key projects that I have worked on recently:

Red squirrels

Partnership working with other organisations is a big part of my job. One significant example in recent years has been the reintroduction of red squirrels to Inverewe, in partnership with Trees for Life. Inverewe was one of 10 sites across the Highlands to take part in this programme as we do not have any grey squirrels here. We know there was a red squirrel population in the past, and we have suitable habitat for them to thrive here again.

Charcoal

Managing a great team of regular estate volunteers, who are from a wide range of backgrounds and always enthusiastic, is good fun! They really are the mainstay of the conservation projects on the estate; without them, a lot of significant achievements would not have been possible. As I was a director and trustee of nearby Laide and Aultbea Community Woodland for a few years, continuing to maintain a good reciprocal working relationship between the Trust and volunteers at the Wood is of mutual benefit.

Our regional National Trust for Scotland Conservation Volunteer group and annual Thistle Camps also give a big boost to our current conservation projects. During our invasive species work to remove Rhododendron ponticum, our Conservation Volunteers used the charcoal kiln to turn what would otherwise be a waste material into a saleable product. Not only did we generate some income for the estate, but we also used branded bags to explain what we are doing with this heritage skill. We were able to show members an example of a conservation project paid for by their membership, offering a behind-the-scenes insight to the usual visitor experience.

The aspen project

This was another project in partnership with Trees for Life as well as Coille Alba, and focused on the propagation of north-west provenance aspen trees at Inverewe. This important project aims to preserve the genetic stock of remnant native aspen in the area, and to produce a seed stand so that we can grow new trees to plant back out in the landscape. My colleagues Maddie and Jim have made a fantastic contribution to this project, as have the regular estate volunteers and supported volunteers with the GALE Centre who have been doing a great job in helping to collect scions, grafting, watering and caring for the new trees.

Horse logging

A few years ago, we had an outbreak of the tree disease Phytophthora ramorum. It kills larch trees and Rhododendron ponticum is a host – we had a lot of both species! This was the most north-westerly outbreak in Britain, and so the Forestry Commission (the government regulator) were keen that we ensured that it could not spread any further. We had to fell the affected trees plus all the trees in a 250-metre buffer zone. With this successfully done, we needed to extract the timber, partly to clear the area to replant and also so we could sell the timber or use it in the estate sawmill.

Having previously done some horse logging with the National Trust at Cragside in Northumberland, I was keen to use this method here at Inverewe, where machinery had proved unsuccessful. Having hired a local horse logging contractor, this job went very successfully. Horse logging is a low-impact, environmentally friendly method of timber extraction, and our public demonstrations of this heritage skill in action were really popular with our visitors. The sight and sound of the horse working in the wood was a particular highlight for me.

The next part of turning the Phytophthora problem into an opportunity was to review the wider forest plan for the estate. We decided to combine the larch extraction with harvesting a large area of plantation conifer, mainly lodgepole pine and Sitka spruce. This would enable us to significantly restructure the forest species mix, from exotic conifers to native species, with the addition of generating income that, in the year of the pandemic, was a fortuitous result. We’re now able to start to replant the area with mainly Scots pine and some broadleaves, to create a much more biodiverse habitat. In the future, this will generate some timber product out of the thinnings but ultimately it will produce a mature Scots pinewood and a restored environment for wildlife and our visitors.

Sawmill

The sawmill is a great asset on the Inverewe estate and enables us to be quite self-sufficient for timber, as well as providing income from timber sales. It’s very satisfying to start with a whole felled tree and finish with bespoke usable timber.

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“The best part of my job is making a tangible difference to conserving my small patch of Scotland’s heritage. Whether it is planting the next generation of trees on the estate or fencing at Corrieshalloch, knowing at the end of the week that the estate and the gorge are in better condition than at the start is really fulfilling.”
Aidan Bell

In the future, I would like to continue working in conservation and heritage, progressing to an Estate Manager position if possible.

Outside of work, I am a volunteer fireman at the Strathspey Railway at Aviemore. I really enjoy the elemental nature of steam and fire, combined with the technical skill and knowledge to bring a steam locomotive to life. Living history is so important in connecting with the past, and the opportunity to show the public into the cab and explain how it works is a great way to engage people with our industrial heritage. In a similar vein, I have recently published a book, Fowler’s Bridges, about Corrieshalloch Gorge and the suspension bridge built there by the Victorian engineer Sir John Fowler. He was famous for being chief engineer of the Forth Bridge and the world’s first underground railway in London.

A man stands with his back to the camera, holding an open book that rests against railings. He is looking at a view of a suspension bridge that crosses a deep gorge. The same view is illustrated on the open page of the book.
Aidan with his book, at Corrieshalloch Gorge

Find out more about Aidan’s book


Inverewe Estate is open daily, all year round. The garden, Osgood’s café, shop, visitor centre and Bothy toilets are open Wednesday–Sunday.

Corrieshalloch Gorge is open daily, all year round.

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