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My winter in a wild Highland Forest - A conservationist's tale

So here I was. It was pitch black. I could vaguely make out the shape of what seemed to be a impossibly large building. We'd been driving through dense forest for the past 20 minutes and I had no idea where I was. In a forest with a complete stranger. With no phone signal. Excellent life choice.

This sounds somewhat like the beginning of a horror story but this was actually my introduction to my internship at RSPB Abernethy reserve. I was going to live here for 5 months through the winter and assist the reserve with their numerous monitoring projects. Despite this bizarre and seemingly frightening introduction, it didn't occur to me to be scared. I was far too excited.

I was right about the building being large. Forest Lodge, the headquarters of Abernethy, was an imposing, multi-roomed building plonked in the middle of the forest. It just oozed history. A completely wooden structure, it had an elegance, hinting at tales of glamour as I could imagine luxurious dinner parties with its high ceilings, impressively large rooms and timeless staircase. It would take me a while to find my way around here. I would have a small nugget of this all to myself. I had the right to be excited.

So, why was I here? Well, I was 24 and just entering the world of wildlife conservation. With an undergraduate and postgraduate degree under my belt, I was keen to get even more industry experience. The RSPB had always been the dream organisation to work for so it felt right to volunteer with them once again. Especially this internship. Abernethy was nestled within the Cairngorms National Park, one of the most beautiful and wildlife rich areas of the Scottish Highlands. With ancient Caledonian pine forests set against the dramatic backdrop of the Cairngorm Mountains this was one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited. I was set for quite an experience.

My days would start with porridge. The only breakfast option in a Highland winter I feel. As this warmed I would watch the slow winter daylight slowly creep in. I saw my first crested tits from my kitchen window. A species only found in pockets of the highlands, so a rare treat. Perky little birds, I would watch them hop around the bird table, occasionally disgruntled when a cheeky red squirrel would scurry in for their breakfast. A perfect Highland scene.

After breakfast, I would pull on my many layers before pushing my way through the front door which was often piled up with snow. I would hop into my trusty land rover and was off to disappear into the forest for the day.

This makes me sound very capable but this placement was in fact a steep learning curve. Having barely driven anything like a 4x4 before and often struggling to navigate through a small town, I knew I had a lot to learn. And fast. The forest was beautiful but it also felt endless. I could literally get lost for days here. I learnt quickly that using seemingly distinctive looking trees as navigational landmarks was never a wise decision...

After some time I could stop concentrating so hard on where I was going and appreciate where I was. I had never been in a place quiet like this. So completely wild. The trees whispered learnings of ancient times. Some would have shared this forest with wolves. I could still sense their mourning for their lost friends.

My days mostly consisted of collecting habitat data. This would be used to inform research that was testing different management methods that could be used to further improve habitat for wildlife. I would trek for many kilometres through the forest, which was no easy feat when the snow arrived. Often falling into snow drifts as deep as my hips, I would lament at my relatively short height. When I took the time to pause, with a much deserved lunch break, it was the stillness that captured me. With only the creaking of trees and occasional bird trill I was totally immersed in this remoteness. Humans were scarce here. This place felt sacred. The air was so clear, so fresh, without a hint of pollution. The quietness was so complete. This was in direct contrast to my summer, which I had spent working as a ranger on a seabird island (see blog post here). Although this was also remote, with endless crashing waves and thousands of screeching seabirds, all trying to be heard, it was far from quiet. I enjoyed the movement of this island. The constant changing tides and the busyness of the birds was invigorating. It made me feel alive. But I still relished this forest. Perhaps a stiller atmosphere but still unquestionably brimming with life. I was at peace but still feeling so very alive.

The days were not long in winter. There was a suddenness to the sunsets meaning that I would return to my forest abode as the late afternoon light seeped away. I loved my evenings here. With limited internet I had complete solitude. I would fill my time making warming plant-filled meals. Relishing the cosiness of preparing vegetables in my warmest socks. This was also the time in my life that I found yoga. It seemed a natural pastime in this place. After the log burner was lit, I would stretch my aching muscle, finding release after tiring days in the forest. This is a habit that the forest taught me and I have continued religiously for all these years. Taking a sense of peace with me.

I learnt so much here. Not just how to get a land rover through a snow drift or how to identify numerous barely distinguishable mosses, but I felt that I had given myself time to grow. I sensed the touch of wisdom from the trees that had gently enveloped me all these months. I had been tested but I had come out with a certainty that I was on the correct path. This work and this place felt so completely right. Like coming home. I haven't left since as the skills I learnt here landed me my career in capercaillie conservation, that I would never had achieved without my time with these trees. I now live locally and often return to Abernethy. I spend a lot of time in forests, but I am yet to venture into one that is quite so special. I am quietly welcomed back by my trees as I know I will always find a home here. My soul has forever been tinged with a touch of green and I will carry this experience with me forever.


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