Birds, bogs, and biscuits: Experiencing life at Auchnerran

Written by Isabella Allan, Scottish Lowlands placement student

On a drizzly Saturday in November, four students packed up their fieldwork gear and drove up the winding and picturesque road to Auchnerran, the GWCT Scottish Demonstration Farm. We were greeted in the dark by the lichen-lined woodlands that surround the farm, and Rachael and I (the two Scottish Lowlands students) were shown to our (very cold) accommodation and given a basket of firewood by Seth and Kate (the two Auchnerran students).

Auchnerran view (Isabella Allan)
A view of Auchnerran. (Credit: Isabella Allan)

Looking out of the window on Sunday morning was a moment that I will remember for a long time. I was taken aback by the eerie but stunning beauty of the Cairngorms: the sky vast, the undergrowth brushed with the russet of autumn, the trees creaking gently in the wind, and various patches of farmland stretching as far as the eye could see. We all took advantage of the local area and the cold but clear weather: Rachael climbed Morven, the local 706m mountain, and Kate and I explored the bookshops and cafes of Ballater before taking a walk around the farm with the aim to identify the masses of different species of lichen that coat every surface in the area. We found fairy circles, and rabbit skulls, and enjoyed the peaceful silence of the woodland as the sun set.

Checking trail camera Fairy circle at Auchnerran
Left: Isabella checking the settings on a trail camera. Right: A fairy circle in the woodland. (Credit: Kate Goodman and Isabella Allan)

Monday morning began our fieldwork extravaganza. We started by swapping out SD cards and batteries from the trail cameras that continuously monitor badgers around the farm, and then continued with winter bird surveys.

Kate behind a bag of grain Seth taking part in winter bird surveys
Left: Kate behind a bag of grain. Right: Seth taking part in winter bird surveys. (Credit: Isabella Allan and Rachael Hustler)

A winter bird survey involves walking the perimeter of each field on the farm and recording what bird species you see, how many there are, and where you saw them. We did these surveys each day that week with Max (the research assistant at Auchnerran) splitting his time, and expertise, between us. It was an excellent way to get a good idea of the layout of the farm and to practise those all-important bird identification skills at the same time. We saw lots of exciting species such as fieldfares, kestrels, kites, coal tits, and of course plenty of buzzards.

Kate counting rabbits with thermal binoculars Rachael counting rabbits with a lamp
Left: Kate counting rabbits with thermal binoculars. Right: Rachael counting rabbits with a lamp. (Credit: Isabella Allan and Seth Howell)

Our evenings were spent rabbit lamping: walking over each field with a big torch or a pair of thermal binoculars and counting how many rabbits we could see. We alternated nights between lamps and thermal binoculars, to ensure that the thermal binoculars result in a reliable count that does not differ too much from the traditional lamping method. We were lucky: the nights were mostly clear and not too wet, and we managed to get a good deal of land covered between the five of us despite the rough terrain. The clear nights were not enough to stop me from tripping into a bog on the first evening, though! Luckily my boots and waterproof trousers kept me dry enough to finish the night’s work, and Kate had plenty of biscuit-based snacks to keep our energy up. It was thrilling to be out in the dark and to see a great deal of wildlife that you usually do not encounter in the daytime. We saw woodcock and snipe, deer and hares, and on the second night, Kate and I were lucky enough to encounter two otters eating a rabbit in the stream next to the road!

The four students getting ready to head out for an evening of counting rabbits using thermal binoculars
The four students getting ready to head out for an evening of
counting rabbits using thermal binoculars. (Credit: Max Wright)

The week was filled with adventure and learning, and I got the opportunity to practise so many skills and use exciting equipment. I am thoroughly looking forward to my next opportunity to visit Auchnerran, even if it does come with the risk of getting up close and personal with a bog!


Re predators

at 11:06 on 26/02/2024 by Robert Hales

I’m am of course worried about tomorrow because of the increase number of predators too many deaths of wildlife what’s left.

Great Blog!

at 9:10 on 26/02/2024 by Imogen Zara Vowles

Sounds like an action-packed week! :)

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