Dreaming against the odds
Jess Tomes is living the dream, her dream. Raised in the shadow of Thetford Forest, a trip to the Cairngorms set her off on a quest to live and work near RSPB Scotland’s Abernethy Forest Reserve. In 2015 she realised that ambition when she took up a post at the Loch Garten Nature Centre. Now as a newly refurbished visitor centre opens she is able to better share her passion for this fantastic site.
Mention of Loch Garten naturally brings to mind images of the osprey. However, the refurbished centre, boosted by ERDF funding, is set to transform the experience of visiting this area.
Some may be a little surprised that the visitor centre needed a refresh, given it has been a mainstay of the Cairngorms National Park tourism trail for some time.
However, as Jess explains time marches on and customer expectations change.
“When I started working here in 2015, visitor numbers had been reducing since the mid-90s (when they had peaked at around 45,000 a year). Our five-month open season was latterly only drawing around 20,000 visitors a year and numbers had been slowly dropping. Given that this is an iconic site for the RSPB, where we grow support for nature and encourage people to do their bit, we felt it was important that we had good number of people coming here. So a change was needed.
“Back in 1959 when we first showed people breeding ospreys The Cairngorms was a tourism destination but nothing compared to what it is now. There is a lot out there for people to do nowadays and they have higher standards on how they spend their cash and free time.
“Our building was architect designed in 1999, and whilst from the outside it looked quite funky and modern, when you went inside it was actually pretty dark, like a glorified hide. There wasn’t much natural light getting in and it felt dated. We had to acknowledge it was behind the times and needed quite a substantial overhaul. That’s where being able to tap into ERDF funding was so helpful, because it is expensive to tackle a building of this scale, in this location.”
Knowing what was needed and delivering it was fraught with challenges. The pandemic hit the centre hard and the raft of Covid restrictions dramatically changed the visitor experience.
“Last year we were operating under strict Covid restrictions,” Jess explains. “We had to limit the number of people coming into the centre. We had to take away an awful lot of our interactive stuff, so there wasn’t really a lot for kids to do, we had to ‘take away telescopes and binoculars which visitors would normally use to watch the wildlife. Even our outdoor seating had to make way for the one-way system we operated. It was hard going.
“On top of that we didn’t get Ospreys beyond May, so it was a bit of a tricky season to be frank, even though it was lovely to be open.”
The non-appearance of the ospreys is something a centre which was synonymous with ospreys felt keenly. But plans are afoot to tackle that head on.
“We have taken advice from Roy Dennis, because we haven’t had chicks fledge from this nest since 2016. We had breeding birds 2017 and 2018 but neither year was successful, and we haven’t had resident birds since 2019. Roy, who is a world authority on the birds and worked here in the early 1960s, quickly assessed that the tree canopy had probably grown up too much. Ospreys like quite a clear view, and to them the higher canopy could be harbouring a pine marten or a goshawk. So he advised that we thin the canopy a lot, and take out a few trees.
“We also decided to move the nest. The tree holding our osprey nest had been attacked with a chain saw and it was basically dead apart from one living limb. Supported by telegraph poles, big metal bolts, it wasn’t the most attractive of nests, but more important than that, every time our warden went up at the beginning and the end of the season to inspect it, things just felt increasingly wobbly.
“So we have taken down that nest. You can still see the metal basket the nest sat in, that’s still there. We had a brand new, purpose-built, osprey nest built in a completely healthy tree. If we don’t get Ospreys back in 2022, then maybe that’s not the end of it, but we have done all we can here basically. I should add that both the tree work and the work on the nest had to be approved by NatureScot – so we had quite an involved process to get consent for these operations.”
If the ospreys pass on Loch Garten it won’t be the end of the centre. Jess explains that the new centre has so much more than previously, hence the new name of Loch Garten Nature Centre replaces the previous Loch Garten Osprey Centre.
“One big difference visitors will notice in the new centre is that we have cameras and live footage of all sorts of things. We have a camera on a white-tailed eagle nest, one looking into a goshawk nest, and cameras on lots of other things – the red squirrels, crested tits, redstarts, goldeneye. We’ve even got a small mammal camera providing a ‘feed’ from a box with a hopper in it that lets us film field voles, bank voles and mice coming in to feed. I should add that these cameras are all dependent on the wildlife actually using the boxes we’ve provided for them, so follow our publicity to see which get used before planning any visit to see the footage. However, the bank of new screens in the visitor centre should be a huge asset. We were very lucky to work with Jason Fathers of Wildlife Windows who has brought so much of the outside to our screens. The new cameras and screens are all part of the ERDF funded project.
Conservation goals, like technology, are rarely static. Today with the dual threat of climate change and biodiversity loss you sense that the value of Abernethy Forest is appreciated more than ever, and for its wider qualities.
“We have a great story to tell here. Our reserve stretches right to the top of Ben Macdui, the second highest mountain in Scotland; we have got great swathes of Caledonian forest, peatlands and montane plateau. Abernethy is the largest of Scotland’s native pinewoods, and we are delighted to be part of the Cairngorms Connect partnership. This is the UK’s biggest landscape restoration project covering an area in excess of 600 square kilometres and draws in a host of partners including Nature Scot. It’s a vision of interconnectedness, of restoring habitats, of restoring natural processes, and benefiting nature on a landscape scale. We, nature and people, need places like this to thrive.
“The really lovely thing about coming to Loch Garten, and it has always been so, is it is a really great place for people who are not so comfortable or familiar with nature to come and experience nature in a really safe environment. There are people here who can talk to them, and show them what’s what, and there is some truly amazing wildlife to experience really close up and close at hand. But you are not in the middle of a forest in the middle of nowhere, up a mountain, you have got your hand held here.
“Yes, it is fragile and it has got many rare and sensitive species in it, but we want people to enjoy it, we want people to experience it and ultimately we want people to care about it. That’s basically why we are here, to try and grow support for nature, All that we ask is that people act responsibly.”
It was never going to be easy to complete such a complex refurbishment in the midst of a pandemic.
“There were several challenges.” Jess concedes, “Obviously the one that springs to mind is lock down and Covid. Initially due to our location it was finding contractors who were able to do what we required of them who were local. We really wanted to use local contractors if we could, we had several tenders back for the building project and some of them were from Glasgow or the Central Belt, but apart from the carbon footprint of having contractors travelling all that way, we were really keen to try and use somebody local. As it turned out fortunately the most competitive tender that ticked most of the boxes, was local and we were really lucky with that.
“Even so it was a roller coaster. The building work started and promptly had to stop. So the building lay for long enough about 70% done, that was quite a challenge and a challenge once the builders could come back in again. It wasn’t easy to pick up where we had left off, work around restrictions and get ready for the 2021 because of course we missed the 2020 season.
“With this refurbishment we had to gut the building completely. Absolutely everything had to come out, which always comes with challenges such as manoeuvring big optics cabinets which are basically made of glass. You know, you are always scared of what you might find when you work on an older building but there were no nasty shocks. It had no heating, it was basically a simple structure. It was quite straight forward.”
So the work is complete, a brand new visitor centre opened in April and Jess is clear about what her new dream is. “I want to encourage more people to come and discover the beauty of Caledonian pinewoods, enjoy Abernethy Forest, find out more about the RSPB’s wider conservation work, and be enthused by the Cairngorms Connect partnership. And to just fall in love with all of this, and want to take part in helping to conserve it.”
The Natural & Cultural Heritage Fund is part of the Scottish Government’s current European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programme, which runs through to 2023. This is one of two ERDF Strategic Interventions led by NatureScot – the other is the Green Infrastructure Fund.
You can follow the European Structural Funds blog for ESF activities, news and updates. For twitter updates go to @scotgovESIF or use the hashtags #ERDF and #europeanstructuralfunds