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20 Mar 2020

Through the eyes of: the third (and present!) Trust ranger at St Abb’s Head

Written by Liza Cole, Property Manager/Senior Ranger, St Abb’s Head NNR
A lady stands talking by a harbour, being interviewed by another lady and filmed by a large camera.
Liza first came to St Abbs in 2005 to become the ranger for the Marine Reserve.
It’s a privilege but also a responsibility being in charge of taking care of an amazing place like St Abb’s Head. No two days are the same, and that is one of the best things about the job.

I had heard of St Abbs long before I actually came here. When I was working as the Warden on Lundy, an island off the coast of Devon, people used to ask me where I would go when I left the island. My answer was ‘I’ve heard good things about St Abbs’. Little did I know that I really would end up working here! There’s just a handful of places in the UK where there are nature reserves both above and below the waves – and I have been lucky enough to work at two of them!

When I first came to St Abbs it was to take up the role of ranger for St Abbs & Eyemouth Voluntary Marine Reserve. At that time the Marine Ranger was employed by the National Trust for Scotland on behalf of the Marine Reserve, and I worked very closely with (and was line managed by) Kevin Rideout, the ranger for St Abb’s Head. My time as Marine Ranger was great fun. Particular stand-outs included organising the world’s first ever Edible Boat Race; being one of 25 ‘David Bellamys’ that jumped into St Abbs harbour to celebrate the Marine Reserve’s Silver Jubilee; and attending a garden party at 10 Downing Street.

But that’s all part of another story. In 2009, after 23 years working as the ranger at St Abb’s Head, Kevin Rideout decided that it was time for a change and headed off to pastures new. I applied for and got his job, and the rest, as they say, is history!

A lady stands on the top of a cliff, looking out along the coastline. She is looking through a pair of binoculars.
Liza at St Abb’s Head

A very common question that I’m asked is ‘what does an average day look like for you?’ An average day? There’s no such thing! No two days are the same, and that is one of the best things about the job. I have to spend much more time behind a desk than my predecessors, but I do still get to go out and about on the reserve quite a lot – and I have had some amazing wildlife encounters over the years.

During the seabird breeding season I spend a fair bit of time out on the cliffs, monitoring in all weathers. I remember one time when it was so calm that, even though I was looking intently down a telescope, I could hear gannets diving into the sea. When I looked up, I was amazed to realise that they were a kilometre away or more, and there was some delay between seeing them hit the water and hearing the splash! Another time, again I was intently looking down a scope and I must have noticed a subtle change in the light or something to make me look up. When I started monitoring, it had been a beautiful sunny day, but now I was shrouded in haar which had silently snuck up on me when I wasn’t looking – quite spooky! Another time, the wind really got up whilst I was out on the clifftops, and, truth be told, it was really too windy to be out there monitoring. But as I had nearly finished, I struggled on, holding on tight to my clipboard and my notebook, peering down a telescope that was shaking like crazy. Eventually I finished the job, but I realised that my rucksack was nowhere to be seen – it had blown off the cliff!

When I first started working in nature conservation, some 30 years ago, peregrine falcons were rare and threatened by egg collectors – you never told anyone where there was a nest site. But these days, the population of peregrines in the UK has just about reached saturation point, and birds are even nesting in cities. This is a great example of how resilient wildlife can be if you remove its threats. We have two pairs of peregrines that nest on the reserve, and this means that you see them a lot, which is fabulous. One memory that really sticks in my mind is coming over a rise in a less-visited part of the property and seeing 3 juveniles lying on the grass with their wings spread out. My immediate reaction was to think that there’d been some foul play and that the birds were dead. But then they heard me, looked up, scrambled to their feet and flew off. I must have caught them napping – or sunbathing to be more precise!

A stoat stands on its rear legs and rest its front paws on a plank of wood. Its head has turned towards the camera.
A stoat investigates the woodpile outside the Rangers’ Office.

I’ve also had many stoat experiences over the years. I’ve seen one in ermine, even though snow is an uncommon occurrence on the reserve. I’ve watched kits playing rough and tumble about a foot away from where I was sitting eating my lunch. I’ve witnessed one take an egg from underneath a razorbill just as I was monitoring that particular bird! On one occasion I was out on a recce with the Trust’s Filming Manager and the film crew for the remake of Whisky Galore. Suddenly there was a blood-curdling scream from the slope above us. A stoat had a rabbit by the throat and the two of them were rolling down the slope towards us, with the rabbit screaming the whole time. The noise eventually stopped, the rabbit having expired, and the stoat dragged it into a nearby burrow to eat it. What an amazing thing to witness – and the film crew were still chatting away about light and shooting angles, totally unaware of what had just happened!

Because of our stunning scenery and easy access from Edinburgh, we get a good number of film and photo shoot enquiries. We usually say yes, as long as it won’t clash with the conservation of the property. They’re a good source of income – we’re a charity, and the property runs on a deficit, so we’re always looking for sources of funding. This means that we can find ourselves witnessing some surreal situations – a film crew who brought a wind machine to St Abbs (where there is seldom no wind!); Thor standing looking moodily out to sea from the clifftops; and Harry Styles dancing with a see-through rucksack full of water on his back!

A lady in a wetsuit stands submerged up to her waist in a loch. She is holding something just beneath the surface of the water.
Liza in the Mire Loch, setting up a siphon to bring the water level down for repairs to the dam.

Not everything about the job is idyllic though. It’s a privilege but also a huge responsibility being in charge of looking after an amazing place like St Abb’s Head. Sometimes the job can be pretty unpleasant and stressful, whether it’s having to deal with antisocial or aggressive behaviour from people using the reserve, or having to make difficult decisions about the management of the reserve. The most stressful decision I have had to make during my time here involved trying to fix a leak in the Mire Dam. There is legislation surrounding reservoirs over a certain capacity, and the Mire Loch is big enough that it has to have regular safety inspections. Over a number of years it became apparent that there was a leak in the dam, and that it was getting worse, so we were told we had to sort it out. After taking advice from a structural engineer, and having a site visit and a chat with our local drainage engineer, I found myself standing on the top of the Mire Dam instructing said drainage engineer to dig a hole in the dam with a digger. Talk about counter-intuitive; my knees were knocking something rotten, I can tell you! The drainage engineer told me afterwards that his were too! We slowed down the leak, but sadly didn’t totally stop it, so at some stage in the future we’re going to have to go back and dig another hole! Argh!

From reading the above, it might seem that I look after St Abb’s Head single-handedly – but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are many, many people who help look after the place: from Ali and Dave at Northfield Farm who help us out with our conservation grazing, and in many other ways too; to numerous seasonal rangers and long-term volunteers over the years who do the vast majority of the work on the ground; to our trusty band of local volunteers who help out with practical work and face-to-face contact with visitors; to local experts who help us out with monitoring and with events. Not to mention those local people who take it upon themselves to police the area – to speak to people they see doing something they shouldn’t, or report it to us. And then, of course, there are our members. Membership subscriptions represent 27% of the income of the Trust, more than any other income stream. Thank you all for your support, we really couldn’t do it without you! Here’s a short video treat to conclude:

Stoats playing on a bench!

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