Volunteering at Abernethy
Jack Plumb, RSPB Youth Publications Editor, satisfies his itch to get his hands dirty and dreams of seeing a golden eagle.
I often get intense cravings for practical work. Loading up a 4x4 with saws, hammers, cables and strops gives me a special kind of thrill. I want to hear the rev of an engine, the snap of a tree, the grunts of exhaustion, and the click of a thermos opening for a tea break. Staring at my computer screen one weekday morning it seemed obvious to me that I needed to get out on a reserve, and get hands-on with some outdoor work.
A childhood dream fulfilled
“A bit of Scotland’s what I need,” I thought to myself as I stared blankly at an invoice. “Surely there I’ll find that hit of aching muscles, dirtied clothes, and bruised and battered hands I’m looking for.” Train tickets booked for Aviemore, and accommodation sorted at the rather grand Hunting Lodge, RSPB Abernethy was firmly in my sights.
I decided to go two days before my week of practical work was scheduled to start. The sole reason for this was to fulfil a childhood dream: an obsession I had for seeing a golden eagle. I arrived late on the Saturday, but managed to haul myself out of bed on Sunday morning. I was rewarded with the most stunning, sunshine-saturated morning I’ve seen this year.
Twists and turns through the forest, up along a ridge, and out into a clearing. “Nothing yet, but my patience will pay off,” I thought. And upon turning a corner past an old croft building, there it was. The sight I had dreamed of since I was 7 or 8: a golden eagle tearing at some carrion, not more than 10 metres away. It took off right in front of me in what felt like complete silence apart from the hollow bellowing of its wings. It circled up and up exactly how I’d seen it in documentaries.
A shelter for capercaillies
The following morning I got kitted up in my boots, hat, and ragged RSPB jumper. It was a crisp morning and we got to work piling cables, winches and strops into the 4x4. Assistant Warden Alice Macmillan led the day’s activity: pulling down trees. I couldn’t think of anything more appealing in that moment, and was eager to start.
The semi-natural forest in the area we were operating was the stage for much of the winter work at Abernethy. Pulling the trees over instead of cutting them meant that the root base became exposed, and this in turn created not only fallen deadwood that provides food for many species of insect, but also a dusty hollow for capercaillies to shelter and “bathe” in.
Using heavy-duty ratchet winches meant there was little noise disturbance compared to a chainsaw, and thinning the forest in this way would hopefully lead to a more natural state. Ultimately this method is adopted to imitate the natural wind-induced felling of trees across the reserve, some of which could be seen on the hills following a heavy storm surge earlier in the year. The rain on the first day of felling only added to my enjoyment. Without some unfavourable weather conditions thrown in it just wouldn’t have been the same – plus it kept the midges away.
Tree after tree fell at my feet, as the winch creaked and the trees cracked each day. This formed the majority of my week’s work, but other work on the reserve throughout the year is as diverse as the habitats found here.
What your support achieves at beautiful Abernethy
Researching the food requirements and behaviours of key species such as the Scottish crossbill and capercaillie, restoring the woodland to the natural state and treeline of 650 metres above sea-level, and of course giving the visitors to Loch Garten the treat of live nest-cam images of ospreys in the summer is just a small selection of the incredible work that happens here thanks to your direct support.
Abernethy is beautiful. I thoroughly enjoyed my week of volunteering, and would urge anyone thinking of doing something like it to just go for it. You’re well looked after by the wonderful reserve staff, and you’ll certainly leave with the feeling of having experienced something special.