Mark Varley shares his experiences of a week spent volunteering at RSPB Forsinard Flows.
A dewy mist rose from the bog and the roaring of the red deer drifted through the stillness. It was warm for an October day, but a dampness hung in the air, making it wet underfoot. As I paused in my task to rest, a hen harrier soared overhead.
When I had first been asked if I would like to support the RSPB in the purchase of a new reserve called Forsinard in the “Flow Country”, I had jumped at the chance, but I never imagined that my donation would take me over 700 miles to spend a week in the Scottish Highlands, getting hands-on with the reserve I had helped to create.
Cutting trees, damming ditches
I arrived at the tiny hamlet of Forsinard at dusk. It consists of a station, a couple of cottages, a near-derelict hotel and a new field centre. After a friendly greeting and a quick tour around the accommodation, I settled down to cooking a meal in the company of six fellow volunteers. Over the next week we got to know each other as a group of people all committed to conservation and ecology.
Our first task on the reserve was to cut back conifers growing on the bog. Then we spent a day damming up forestry ditches to help the peat recover from the ill-advised planting of the past. We also helped survey water levels and deer-grazing levels.
The size of the reserve meant that our day usually started with a 45-minute drive in a 4x4 to our work area. Wildlife was hard to come by, as peatland species are usually sparsely distributed over a large area. But what it lacked in quantity it certainly made up for in quality. One day we saw rutting red deer, hen harriers and 7,000 redwings on migration, all in a 75-minute period.
For peat’s sake
The peatland here, and its ecology, was fascinating. Many patient experts explained to me the importance of such land, and I’d never found staring down at my wet feet so interesting. Much of the work was quite physical, and the typical UK weather didn’t let us down, but we all agreed the week was worthwhile. We really felt we had contributed a little to the management of this amazing reserve. The experience was totally brilliant.
I returned home after my week with a new passion for peat bog and for the Forsinard reserve. It is a stunning wild place and in the summer it provides a home for many rare breeding birds and other species. The scale of the work being undertaken to “repair” the damage done by the misplaced forestry is massive, and it will probably take a generation or more for much of the reserve to recover.
If you ever get the chance to visit Forsinard, whether that’s as a volunteer or just as a visitor, do go. This wonderful, remote place is an investment in the future of us all.
Check www.rspb.org.uk/volunteering for details of volunteering opportunities.