I’m currently in my seventh ranger season. I say ‘season’ because I’m a seasonal ranger. We get employed during the busier, warmer months when more folk are flocking to the great outdoors, whether that’s urban green spaces, Country Parks, or the wider countryside. And across those seven seasons the question I’ve probably been asked most is….what does a ranger actually do?
Well, let’s set the context first. Countryside rangers have been around for 50 years in Scotland, the first having assumed their post in 1969. The impetus for this landmark event was the expansion of leisure time in the 1960s and the subsequent pressures that this was seen to be exerting upon the countryside. Organisations tasked with the protection of the countryside did exist at the time but they were generally more scientific, beardy-type affairs that had little means (or experience) with which to welcome and manage visitors.
The Countryside (Scotland) Act 1967 was the solution, its intent explicit:
‘to make provision for the better enjoyment of the countryside, for establishment of the Countryside Commission for Scotland (forerunner of SNH) and for improvement of recreational and other facilities’
The Act gave local authorities the power to designate Country Parks – a managed and accessible taste of the countryside on the edge of large population centres – and key to these new leisure hotspots were ranger services, which the Act allowed councils to create. Rangers would welcome and inform visitors about the recreational opportunities on offer, educate them about the wildlife they might encounter, and foster a greater understanding of both the Country Park and the wider countryside.
Ranger Services were soon adopted by most council areas, numerous private estates (such as Balmoral), and at properties managed by charities (such as Culzean). Several decades later there are around 90 services in Scotland (provided by over 60 employers) and you’ll find them from the heart of our cities to the farthest flung islands (eg Tiree and Fair Isle).
The ranger role varies from one service to the next depending on local heritage, the local environment, local recreational pressures and the management objectives of the property in question. And while a basic remit links them all together – that of connecting people to places and to nature – still the question of what a ranger remains unanswered because even within an individual service it’s fantastically varied work, and no two days are ever the same. That’s why we all love it so much!
The best way to answer it is to spend a week with a ranger…..so let’s do just that. Here’s my actual diary from an average week in June this year, as a ranger at Mar Lodge Estate. Oh and I should point out this was just my own personal workload. The other two rangers were equally busy elsewhere on the estate!
Mar Lodge is a 29,000 hectare estate in the Cairngorms, managed by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). We have 15 munros on the estate (including four of the five highest hills in the country), over 200 miles of paths, two principal car parks and we receive approximately 100,000 visitors a year. The Ranger Service has two permanent staff and one seasonal (Me!).
Wednesday: 10am start. Email check first, then it’s down to the Linn of Dee car park for the daily inspections. It’s our main access point for visitors, and on busy summer days there can be 100 vehicles crammed into it.
First I check that the visitor portaloos are clean and free of….erm….blockages. We do this every morning (several times on busy days) and there’s always apprehension when you open those doors because you never know what you might find. Bagged dog poo, bags of beer cans, spent nappies, disposable BBQs, dirty clothing or, worst of all, a loo with the lid down. That’s never a good sign. I don’t know if it’s a shame thing or what, but people seem oddly compelled to try and hide what they’ve done.
Then I put the hillwalking weather forecast (MWIS) up on the notice board and fill the leaflet dispensers, our most popular leaflet being the Linn of Dee Trails. Parking ticket machine checks are next, emptying or fixing them as required, before litter-picking the car park.
Litter-picking is a staple in all ranger services, and the number of hours some spend doing it is ridiculous. We’re fortunate at Mar Lodge that we don’t have a huge litter or flytipping problem, but when I worked as a ranger in West Lothian it could amount to a full working day or more every week. I always thought that the person who says ‘keeping you in a job, mate!’ when challenged about dropping litter was a ranger myth, but I encountered them in my last job. I calmly replied that my job would be here regardless, but that for every 90 mins I spent picking up litter it was another primary school class I couldn’t teach.
Today the car park is clean save for the requisite half dozen or so tissues, some sweet wrappers and a pair of forgotten walking poles. I then ensure that the events whiteboard is up to date, as we run a programme of events between March and October, including black grouse watches, tours of the lodge & ballroom, kids’ outdoor activities and guided walks. I then drive down to the Linn of Quoich (our other car park) and repeat most of the above tasks, all of which takes all morning.
After lunch the Ranger Service leads a walk for 54 students. We host educational groups in term time, and not just from Aberdeenshire. These are from Paris and today we’re taking them around the Glen Lui loop to show them our woodlands and wildlife, explain how and why the estate is managed as it is, and help them practice their English. It needs all three of the rangers to do it, taking 17 students each.
The last time we hosted a French group some of the words and terminology were lost in translation, so this time I’ve memorised key French words to help me explain better. ‘Cerf’ is stag. ‘Ramures’ is antlers. ‘Miles carrés’ is square miles. But the word for ‘stalking’ continues to elude me, and my attempts at a literal translation instead prompt raised eyebrows when I say we employ our very own stalkers.
Today, using the scientific Latin/Greek names for species is actually more effective than trying a translation of the common name. One French ecologist instantly understands ‘Molinia’ whereas ‘Purple Moor Grass’ draws a complete blank. But even then, confusion or amusement arises. When the same chap points at a large scots pine and asks….’penis?’, it takes me a few seconds to figure out it he is saying ‘Pinus’ but with a French pronunciation. Ha ha, we get there in the end!
Thursday: 9am start. It’s an ecology day, which means hands-on help for the estate ecologists. They’re out and about most days, surveying and monitoring the flora and fauna, and as seasonal ranger I get to help them one day a week. Over the summer that tends to be tree transects, which is an important part of the woodland regeneration work underway at Mar Lodge.
There’s only 180 km2 of native scots pine woodland left in Scotland and we have about 5% of that total on the estate. It’s rare, precious, showered with various nature designations and, thanks in no small part to deer control by the estate’s team of keepers, the woodlands are ‘regenerating’ of their own accord, without the need for planting. Pine, birch, rowan, alder and willow saplings are popping up all over the place now that the grazing pressure has been reduced, and this is meticulously studied and documented by the estate ecologists.
Today’s survey is in Glen Derry and involves studying a 1000m x 2m transect, which runs down one side of the glen and up the other, recording and measuring the number of saplings and seedlings. It involves two of us shuffling through 1km of thick heather, eyes at our feet, getting sore necks. The terrain is challenging and any new seedlings are almost invisible, so it’s slow work and it takes all day. There are over 10km of these transects to do – they get done every two years but other tree surveys are annual while some, like dead wood surveys, only get done every ten years.
Friday: 9:30am start. The morning is a repeat of Wednesday’s duties. After lunch I reply to emails, including a Duke of Edinburgh group checking if it’s okay to camp at Derry Lodge one night in July. We appeal to DofE groups to run their plans by us so that we can, if necessary, minimise the impact upon the environment by suggesting alternatives when more than two groups are planning on camping in any one location.
I then take a phonecall from someone booking onto our guided walk up Ben Macdui, before planning a school class I’m helping with next week for Braemar Primary. I’ll be teaching the kids how to use wildlife keys to identify invertebrates.
Mar Lodge has a long relationship with the school, and these days we visit most weeks to assist with their outdoor / nature learning. The nursery kids in particular favour a forest school approach, and it’s interesting how some kids whose learning struggles in the classroom are more relaxed and better able to cope with tasks in a woodland setting. That they react so positively towards nature speaks volumes about its power to educate, and how important the natural world and outdoor recreation are to human development. Of course, that assumes that everyone has access to the natural world, which we know isn’t the case, and is just one way that ranger services can make a difference at that young age by engaging with primary schools, especially in urban areas.
I finish early at 3pm because I’m on fire patrol this evening. Estate staff take turns to patrol the estate, owing to the significant danger that campfires present to our internationally important habitats and wildlife. We spend the summer in perpetual anxiety about campfires becoming wildfires, as happened in 2014 when a weekend campfire seemingly burned down unseen into the peat and then, three days after the campers had departed, flared up in strong winds. It took 11 fire appliances and a helicopter to bring it under control.
In Scotland, campfires aren’t permitted in woodland or on peaty ground without landowner permission, or during times of high fire risk. It’s high fire risk just now, so tonight I’m patrolling the glens, sniffing for smoke and chatting to campers. It’s uncharacteristically quiet but I get that familiar sinking feeling in my stomach when I catch the whiff of smoke through the truck window. Walking through the forest, following my nose, I find half a dozen tents and a large group of adults and kids having a barbecue. Thankfully it’s not one of those disposable BBQs, which can ignite the vegetation beneath them, rather it’s a proper self-contained, raised BBQ with a grille. A much safer option.
They’ve finished cooking but I still give a friendly talk about being extra vigilant in the bone-dry woodland. We chat cheerily for 10 minutes about camping and other things, and they insist on sharing their spare burgers with me. It’s a nice gesture, but not uncommon because most people understand it’s nothing personal and that you’re only trying to protect the place. Folk generally react okay to having their fires extinguished provided you don’t go in all guns blazing. I eventually finish work at 10:15pm.
Saturday: 9am start. Straight down to Linn of Dee to clean the loos and litter-pick the car park and trails. I then deal with two recent campfire sites, one on the Dee and one at the Punchbowl, both of which appeared this week during the high fire risk. Both have the classic ring of stones around a scorched, blackened area of grass. I check that the stones and ashes are cold before putting the former back in the river, and scattering the latter widely. That magic ring of stones doesn’t contain your fire because the heat burns downwards as well as outwards, so I then check that the ground underneath the fire site isn’t hot.
On peaty and woody soil the only way to be certain a campfire is out is to dig down as much as 20cm, utterly saturate the hole you’ve dug with as much as 10l or more of water, and then pierce the bottom of the hole with a stick to let the water seep downwards. A saucepan’s worth, or a 1l bottle of water, just won’t suffice.
Digging-over also ensures that the burnt and seared patch of ground will turn green again. One blackened patch in a season wouldn’t be massively detrimental visually and would recover in time, but when our wild places are under such massive pressure it’s never just one blackened patch. If we leave them in situ they breed like rabbits, old fire sites arguably giving people the impression that fires in woodland or on peat are tolerated. They’re not. And so for the sake of the environment, and to maintain the sense of wildness for all of our visitors, we restore campfire sites so that you’d never know anyone had been there – ‘leave no trace’ being the worthy and logical maxim when accessing the outdoors, leaving places as you find them….or indeed better! Last year we found and restored 61 campfires between May and October, and managed to speak to the folk who’d lit them in about a third of those cases. This year we’re already approaching 50.
While I’m digging, a walker asks if the footpath up the east Quoich is walkable. I explain part of it was washed away by the floods in 2014 and is therefore very rough. He thanks me and heads off, undeterred.
I then return to the Linn of Dee car park and staff the ranger hut for a couple of hours, chatting to visitors. Public engagement is at the core of rangering and, given the size of Mar Lodge Estate and its importance in Scottish conservation, almost everyone has a question or is looking for assistance in some way. Along with guided walks it’s the part of the job I enjoy most, actually talking to people, telling them why this place is so special.
This morning’s engagement includes chatting to several DofE groups, helping folk park their vehicles, supplying change for the ticket machines and helping a bloke figure out how to wash his hands! Lots of people are seeking route advice but in under two hours I also field questions re’ dogwalking during ground-nesting bird season, the history of the lodge, the state of the woodlands, why there are no rubbish bins, the rules of wild camping and where is good for a swim.
I’m out on patrol again this evening so I finish at 2pm. When I return home a car pulls up, and a couple ask if they can see inside the lodge. Mar Lodge Estate has busy housekeeping and estate maintenance teams, who can show people inside the lodge if duties allow, but I’m the only person here just now. I do enjoy a good blether so spend 40 minutes or so showing these folk the public rooms and the ballroom, eventually finishing at 3pm.
Back to work at 7pm, patrolling Glens Dee, Lui and Quoich. I chat to a few campers at Derry Lodge but happily it’s quiet and fire-free again. I take the opportunity to litter-pick behind Derry Lodge, as it’s usually peppered with tissues from where people have emptied their bowels, and finish work at 9:45pm.
Sunday: 9am start. The usual morning portaloo/litter/mountain weather duties at the car parks before heading out on a remote patrol to Bynack Lodge and Red House, where I find and restore two more fire sites. At Bynack Lodge I chat to two cyclists, who ask about the quality of the track between there and Glen Tilt.
After lunch, 3hrs of public engagement at Linn of Dee, first (reluctantly) removing a small wasp’s nest from the ranger hut. I unfurl an OS map on the bonnet of the truck, an effective way of attracting folk seeking advice. Aside from route advice, this afternoon’s questions include clay pigeon shooting, lodge accommodation, DofE routes and where to visit in Perthshire and Assynt. I also help two French walkers find the start of their multi-munro walk, and help a nervous-looking bus driver find his 24 missing Icelandic hillwalkers. Don’t ask!
There’s less money around these days, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone, and ranger services are therefore every bit as threatened as some of the species and habitats they seek to protect. In 2017 there were 269 full time rangers in the whole of Scotland, which might sound a lot but 141 posts have been lost since 2008.
The Scottish Countryside Ranger Association (SCRA), which represents Scotland’s rangers and is entirely volunteer-led, has charted the decline. It seemingly began in the 90s but accelerated in 2008 after the Scottish Government stopped ring-fencing the SNH grant aid that most ranger services received, and instead put it into the main settlement for local authorities, with predictable consequences. The decline accelerated after the financial crash with, unsurprisingly, the bulk of ranger losses being borne by councils.
Paradoxically, as ranger numbers fall, rangers are needed more than ever. It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that there’s a tourism boom going on out there, not unlike the one that led to rangers being introduced in the first place. Visitor numbers to Scotland have been increasing in recent years, but who will welcome these visitors to our great outdoors? Who will recommend routes and walks? Who will advise them on responsible access? On the Scottish Outdoor Access Code? True, that information is all online if you actively search for it, but often there’s no substitute for walking into a visitor centre or picking up the phone, and chatting to folk who know the area intimately. Folk who understand not only visitor needs, but also those of the sensitive environments they’ve come to visit.
But even before you consider the needs of overseas visitors, the value to the folk who live here in Scotland is huge. In 2017 almost 70,000 people, between nursery and university levels, attended educational activities with rangers. More than 25,000 volunteers participated in practical tasks led by rangers. More than 3000 community groups engaged with ranger services to meet their aims. And more than 50,000 people attended ranger public events. There is no figure for the number of people who engage with rangers during their visit, and by that I mean more than just a ‘hello’. I mean having been helped in some way, whether that’s advice or a question about wildlife, parking, walks, heritage or whatever. My own engagement tally just for this season is more than 1300 people, so the total figure nationwide, across all rangers, will be huge.
Rangers are a complete no-brainer, especially when there’s a government focus on getting more people physically active. The case for physical and mental wellbeing, of having green spaces in which to play, relax and volunteer, and of having someone managing them to improve access, cannot be overstated. Nor can the importance of nature conservation in the current climate and extinction crises.
SCRA organised a petition in 2017, asking the Scottish Government to implement the ‘Rangers in Scotland’ framework that SNH produced in 2008. This would involve detailed reporting on ranger activity (and therefore documenting the benefits) nationwide, and recognition of the role rangers play in Scottish society. The government has since acknowledged rangers’ importance but they maintain that funding is a matter for local authorities. So, where we stand in 2019 is finding Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee broadly supportive of moving the petition forward, and SCRA in conversation with SNH to that end.
There’s no room for complacency. People don’t know what they have until it’s gone, and people won’t speak up for something if they don’t know it exists. And that’s a problem for many ranger services because, unlike some professions, their work can easily go unnoticed despite the broad remit. We definitely need to shout louder about what we do, and in that regard I hope this column might at least help in raising the profile of rangers, the work they do, and highlight their precarious existence in an even more precarious world.
Alas, this is my final column for Walkhighlands, and I couldn’t go without saying an enormous thank you to Paul and Helen for having giving me this opportunity back in 2014. I’ve since written 60 articles and have learned LOADS from all the research I’ve done, but the high profile of Walkhighlands in Scotland has also undoubtedly played a big part in creating other opportunities for me along the way, not least the president role I’m currently holding with Ramblers Scotland. And for that, I’m enoooooormously grateful. But a BIG THANK YOU as well to everyone who has read these columns and commented on them, and who have shown such an interest in the natural world over the years. I hope you’ve learned as much as I have. It’s been a pleasure!
Oh and you can follow my ‘Ranger Daily Diary’ from Mar Lodge here on Twitter.