Conservation in the Cairngorms

Five rainbows, ptarmigan, beautiful autumn colours and exciting chats with students and conservation practitioners – the Conservation Science course fieldtrip was a wonderful conservation-themed weekend! I’ve been dreaming of going to the fieldtrip for two years, and this year it finally happened!

I took the Conservation Science course as a student two years ago, and I loved it! The opinion piece was definitely one of my favourite assignments ever, and earlier this year, it got published in the Biosphere magazine – you can check it out here if you are keen to learn about conservation in the Australian Outback. I was also very excited about the course having a blog, so I couldn’t stop myself at writing just the blog post that was part of the course assignments, and wrote one more about how our obsession with rare species might be hampering conservation. Overall, I was very inspired and motivated by the course. I was also very bummed out, because I couldn’t go along to the fieldtrip back then, so I only got to hear the amazing stories and look at the beautiful photos. When I came back to the University of Edinburgh this fall as a PhD student, I was thrilled that not only will I get to do my dream research, but I will also be able to do my dream tutoring on the Conservation Science and GeoScience Outreach courses. As we headed out to the Cairngorms, well, you probably couldn’t see my enthusiasm and excitement, because I get motion sickness very easily, but once we arrived, I was all ready for adventure!

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Hiking at Glen Feshie

For me, the highlight of fieldtrips is that students and staff get to know each other, and explore and learn together. I loved that as a student, and I love it now as a member of the teaching staff. It was great to talk about conservation, academia, careers and life with the students – be it by the fire, on hikes, or just at breakfast, it’s wonderful to hear students’ thoughts. Aside from all the talking, we also got to play a game together!

The activity I led was a game called “Species on the move”.

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The cards for the game – you can download a pdf here.

Here is the premise: faced with climate change, habitat change, conflicts with human activities and naturally occurring environmental change, species have three options: adapt, move, or go extinct. We focused on moving, or changes in distribution ranges, as this strategy might be particularly relevant in Scotland, where climate change and land use change might force species to move. Each student drew a species card and joined one of two ecological communities. The students, each representing a species, lined up – their current habitats were no longer suitable, so they had to move. Species traits, human attitude and conservation support all influence the success of species on the move. I then called out various criteria for movement, like: “If you can fly, take one step forward”, “If fences can’t stop you, take one step forward”. Half way through we introduced lynx and beaver in our ecological communities, which then had effects on the success of some of the already present species.

The aim of the game was to find out which species first reach their new, more suitable habitat. As students were taking steps forwards and sometimes back (poor rare alpine plants!), we could already put together a picture of how intrinsic factors, like species’ traits, interact with extrinsic factors like land management and conservation interventions, to create dynamic ecosystems, where some species will be winners, and others losers, Afterwards, we heard from our winning and losing species, who all shared their strategies for success or what held them back. Haydn, our Scottish crossbill, shared why he was way behind Thomas, the Common crossbill. Or were those meant to be the same species? Afterwards all of us, winners and losers, had a warm cup of tea and ate delicious cake, a lovely finish to our adventures in the Highlands!

You can download the cards for “Species on the move” here.

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