Ecosystem Services MSc students take on the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

At the end of April we spent a week in the surprisingly sunny Cairngorms National Park, one of Scotland’s two national parks, and the largest the UK has to offer. The week was divided into two halves, the first consisting of meeting and talking with various different organisations and stakeholders involved in the land management of the park and the during the second half we had to design and pilot a research project of our own choice. Generally quite a packed seven days!

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Day one, we convoyed the mini buses up to Aviemore, stopping in Pitlochry for lunch and a chat with the John Muir Trust. Over some classically British tea and biscuits we got our first low down of the way various landowners and organisations manage and conserve Scotland’s land. We discussed how policy makers and practitioners work together, and sometimes against together, to conserve both the natural and cultural environment. We continued our drive up into the park stopping at the Rothiemurchus estate where we spoke with one of the estate rangers about how they manage their land. To our surprise, much of the National Park’s land is privately owned, often by very wealthy Europeans. While they have to respect legislation and land designations they also have their own agendas. Rothiemurchus have utilised what the land has to offer making recreation and tourism, cultural ecosystem services, their priority. However, this also means dealing with the large number of visitors on their land. That evening we arrived at our home for the week, a cabin in Badaguish near Aviemore.

For the next few days we continued to explore the various estates and ecosystems that make up the National Park. We spoke to the Scottish Natural Heritage, the Cairngorms National Park Authority, RSPB and the Spey Catchment Initiative. Our picture of the socio-ecological makeup of the National Park and the importance of the working relationships between all the stakeholders grew. It was refreshing to learn from those on the ground and in the field and see how the ecosystem services approach was being utilised outside of academia. While some of these discussions were held in conference and meeting rooms some did allow us the opportunity to explore the actual estate, walking around the lochs, rivers, moorlands and woodlands of the Scottish Highlands. One of the most impressive is Glen Fishie a winding river through moorland and regenerating pine woodland surrounded by mountains… and it only rained a little. We also got a little taste of the countries wildlife, feeding the deer, and spotting a number of different wading birds and moth species as well as getting up close and personal with the iconic highland cows or to the locals the ‘hairy coos’.

The last couple of days of the week we were tasked with designing our own research project and conducting a pilot study. The aim of this was to identify a gap in knowledge or address a problem within the Cairngorms, gain experience in designing a research project and, after conducting a pilot study, adjust and develop the project design accordingly. Due to the small size of our course we split into two groups of three. One group took a more environmental approach, tackling the issue of deer grazing on the regenerating woodlands, measuring vegetation and deer’s taste preferences, while my group conducted a social science investigation into public perceptions of the reintroduction of the lynx, taking to the streets of Aviemore and performing preference ranking tests. In terms of assessments on the trip, on the last morning before jumping back in the minibus we presented our project designs and reflected on our design process. We have also written up a reflective learning journal of what we had learnt and how from the first half of the week’s talks. These were not there to judge our ability to conduct a whole research project in a couple of days, something that is very hard to do properly, but to make us think critically about the research design process and the way we gather information to shape our own research.

While not the most exotic field trip it was really beneficial to see how ecosystem services are being used by policy makers and practitioners to manage land in National Parks in Scotland and the UK.

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