Fiona Hyslop Cabinet Secretary and MSP on a visit to the RSPB Abernethy Nature Reserve. Loch Garten Reserve

Wildlife Watch Abernethy

Interview with Jess Tomes, Visitor Operations Manager, RSPB Scotland.

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New look for an old favourite

Back in the 1950s Loch Garten sprang into the national news as the centre of efforts to protect ospreys in Scotland. It was one of this nation’s most successful wildlife stories and today the site remains synonymous with celebrating our natural history.

A new project – Wildlife Watch Abernethy – is now set to build on that popularity by making creative improvements to the already popular visitor centre that sits here. It’s a flagship RSPB Scotland site, and the inspired refurbishment will enhance its appeal to both new and returning visitors.

There are several exciting elements to this project. Firstly the building will transform the visitor experience, but without increasing the footprint. A ‘sustainable’ approach will see large areas of glazing replace what were solid walls which will, in an instant, open up new and larger views. Natural light and solar heat will be two significant resources the new centre will harness.

An imaginative design ensures a memorable visitor experience that will appeal to all ages. Education opportunities will be increased, interpretation facilities improved and a substantial local economic boost delivered – all whilst conserving the essential fabric of the area. The majestic Caledonian pines will be easier to enjoy, the species which thrive in and around these iconic trees will likewise be brought even closer. In short this is a project that promises to make a very special area, even more accessible.

Jess Tomes, Visitor Operations Manager at Abernethy Forest, is ideally placed to talk about aspirations for the new centre. She has been associated with this site since 1995 and when we caught up recently the interior renovations were already underway.

Jess, you’ve been associated first hand with this site since the mid 1990s. What are your hopes for the new centre?

Well, when this centre was built in 1999, it was really intended to be used as a kind of luxury bird hide to watch the ospreys from. But twenty years on, our requirements and our visitors’ expectations have changed. I hope that the improvements we’re making will bring the Loch Garten Nature Centre up to date, both in terms of visitor experience and also in terms of the stories we have to share about the amazing Caledonian forest, as well as the ospreys of course. I hope that visitors will leave having had a truly memorable experience, where they’ve been wowed by the forest surrounding them, and had an authentic connection to nature, be they young, old, hardened nature lovers or relative beginners.

Loch Garten is traditionally associated with the osprey, but there is an awful lot more for visitors to enjoy.  Which species and habitats should new visitors look forward to seeing, and learning more about?

Absolutely! There is so much for visitors to see and enjoy here. A firm favourite with everyone is always the red squirrels, who visit our feeders daily, as well as the chance to get really close to a variety of small woodland birds. But one of the wonders of Abernethy is that you never know what you might see next – a walk along the trails may reveal a common lizard, basking in the sun, or a bank vole scurrying through the blaeberry. And on Loch Garten there’s always a chance of spying an otter, or seeing a white-tailed eagle harrying the water-fowl, amongst so many other natural wonders. Now, along with having the chance of seeing these creatures, our visitors will be able to learn about them too, with the new interpretation in the centre and on the ‘Big Pines’ and ‘Two Lochs’ trails. As well as the huge variety of species there’ll also be interpretation about the rare and wonderful Caledonian pineforest – it really is like no other habitat in the UK and Abernethy is the largest remnant. 

As well as the refurbished centre, I understand there will be work in the surrounding area – refreshed interpretation is one of the key things.  How do you think this will enhance the visitor experience?

At the moment, when visitors walk the ‘Big Pines’ and ‘Two Lochs’ trails, all they have to guide them is a paper trail guide, which just gives information and doesn’t interpret the forest. The new interpretation on the trials will be in keeping with the natural surroundings – the last thing we want to do is to detract from the wonder of the forest and lochs – and will give visitors the chance to learn more about what they’re looking at and also hint at the hidden world they can’t see, for example the enormous value of deadwood to a forest.

You are investing considerable time and effort in involving the local community and in particular local schools. Can you tell us a little more about that side of things?

Yes, we’re really keen to bring the local community with us in this new venture and our team will be making connections with interested people who have their own stories to tell about the forest and what it means to them. Part of the interpretation will reflect these tales and thoughts, and there’ll be the opportunity to add new stories and new local experiences year-on-year. Including local school children is key to this – we want them involved in the interpretation at the centre but also we want them to come along and bring their families too. Every family with primary school age children in the local communities will receive a “Golden Ticket” to come to the new Nature Centre over the summer holidays.

Tourism is a big business in the Cairngorms National Park, could this project provide a boost?

Of course! There is so much to see and do in the Cairngorms National Park and sustainable, quality development of the visitor offer here can only be a good thing. This project will deliver on all of the Park’s strategic aims (To conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area; To promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area; To promote understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the area by the public; To promote sustainable economic and social development of the area’s communities.)

The refurbished centre will be a change for staff working at the site. What elements of the old building will you miss, and what excites you most about the new visitor centre?

That’s an interesting question! The old building will still essentially be there, just with a different internal layout and it’s a lovely building, but it was no longer fit for purpose, either for visitors or staff, so if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ll miss anything! The redevelopment is going to give us a much lighter, warmer and more spacious centre (the old centre could occasionally hit below zero degrees!) and for so long we’ve been wanting an experience which reflects the whole of the forest, not just one species, so I’m really looking forward to the new interpretation too. Behind the scenes, I’m really, really looking forward to having a separate store room and office – no more tripping over sacks of bird seed or boxes of craft equipment when we’re trying to get to our (single!) desk – we’ll have a dedicated office, with room for three desks and it will be insulated and heated too! Luxury! All in all, this is going to be a game-changer for the Loch Garden Nature Centre, both in terms of the visitor experience and the operational side for the staff. That can only be a good thing and I for one, cannot wait!

With many thanks to Jess Tomes, Visitor Operations Site Manager, for her time. Wildlife Watch Abernethy has received just over £252,000 from the Natural Cultural and Heritage Fund, which will create three new, local jobs as well as extend the opening season and improve the visitor experience at Loch Garten, so more people can enjoy the nature reserve and learn about conservation in the Cairngorms.