New year often begins with change – an initially painful process perhaps, but one by which we become who we are meant to be. Some goodbyes come easier than others – the discarding of responsibilities and possessions can be exceptionally relieving. Places are more difficult though. We are made up of all the places we have loved and natural places in particular, seem to “collect” people for their own.

For nearly three years I volunteered at Glen Tanar within the Cairngorm National Park. An estate of captivating natural beauty, wondrous wildlife and forward thinking views on conservation. Glen Tanar collected me from the moment I first set foot there. Maybe because I was accustomed to the gentle rolling pastures of the Scottish Borders and its dramatic, raw quality was new to me. Or perhaps I simply required that soothing natural medicine which only the outdoors can so adeptly provide. My time in Glen Tanar was one of great learning and allowed for the essential nurture of my passions. I have left with many a fond memory and insight – some of which I will share with you now.

The first is that no textbook, website or lecture can ever compare with real time spent outdoors in the natural world. There are some wonderful books out there – but becoming a good field naturalist is achieved through experience. Experience is gained through being outside and through engaging all of your senses. Through listening to bird calls, observing interactions, being bitten by wood ants – even through smelling otter spraints! I have learnt more about nature from being out in the field than I have done from any other source. It seems like an obvious point to make, but you’d be surprised at the number of people attempting to enter the environmental sector without these vital skills. In such a competitive field, there is absolutely no excuse for not having any field or voluntary experience. If you are busy then make time for it – nothing will prepare or equip you better. Rising early on Saturday morning to go and work all day (often in cold and wet conditions) isn’t always that appealing – but if you are passionate about conservation you will do it. The rewards are tenfold – Glen Tanar gave me my first golden eagle, sea eagle, black grouse, firecrest, hairy wood ant, fox moth, rose chafer beetle and more. I will always be grateful to the glen and its staff for improving my skills and making me a better naturalist.

Leading on from that, I have learned the value of “hands on” conservation practice. Volunteers perform a variety of labour intensive tasks, which reserves often lack the resources to complete themselves. This can mean anything from tree planting to fence removal to dredging a lochan! A group of willing people can produce a visually noticeable difference in the land in just one day. This is important to embrace – sometimes conservation can become an endless string of meetings and proposals, without tangible results. Work parties transform the land, engage people and help us to protect nature quicker. Of all the conservation charities I know, the John Muir Trust understand this and execute it brilliantly. I would like to see more organisations following in their footsteps and collaborating to reach a common goal.

Next: Scotland has too many deer. I think most conservationists know this – but reading something and seeing it with your own eyes are two very different things. When you go into the hills and understand what you are looking at, the devastation reeked by these herbivores hits home. Even more so when you witness the effect of their removal. A great example of this is at Mar Lodge in the Cairngorms; a National Trust estate essentially split into two zones. On one side the original stalking practice continues and on the other, a “zero tolerance” attitude towards deer. If anybody ever need proof of our monumental deer problem, then I invite you to witness the difference between the two. A walk through the zero-tolerance zone reveals a naturally regenerating, healthy and native woodland. Free from the relentless cropping by deer, it’s clear that the land is desperate to rewild itself. I cringe when I hear people refer to beautiful, bleak, barren hills being the essence of Scotland. Such comments are made by those who do not understand its ecological past. If you love wild places you should support the reduction of deer – either through culling or reintroduction of apex predators.

I should probably mention why I had to leave this beloved glen in the first place. I began this blog by talking about change; as It happened that’s exactly what I was lacking. January kept coming around and I found myself treading water. I have always been very driven; I applied for university at 15, was in a graduate job by 20 and by 24 had a good career as a chemist within an environmental research institute. I was also deeply unsatisfied. I yearned for the natural world and the more I worked, the more I felt it slipping from my reach. I decided that I had to quit my job – or be forever destined to experience nature from behind my office window. I moved city and invested the majority of my savings into enrolling for a Masters degree in ecology and conservation. I have never been happier.

I feel very lucky that I came to this realisation at 24 – I know others who approached retiring age before arriving at the same conclusion. My last point is that if you are passionate about something you must be unwavering in the pursuit of it. Your previous qualifications will never be taken away from you and will always be there to fall back on. You’re going to spend most of your life working – make sure it’s something that sets your heart on fire.

My time in Glen Tanar has been significant in the path I have chosen. Until we meet again – here are some of my favourite memories and photos.