Catchment champions: the women working for nature on Deeside

We highlight and celebrate some of the women working for conservation here on our doorstep, in the Dee catchment. Spanning a range of roles, these women and many thousands like them across the globe are passionate about nature, and the vital work they’re doing for humans and biodiversity in a heating climate.

Thursday, 11th March 2021, 7:00 am
Catchment Champions: clockwise from top left: Sally MacKenzie, Helen Rowe, Catriona Reid and Susan Cooksley

Catriona Reid is the Nature Reserve Manager at Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve.

She said: “From discussing ecology and the re-wilding debate with students, to clearing wetland scrub, surveying birds, or entertaining a bunch of primary school kids, every day is different. I always describe myself as a generalist - I need to know a bit about lots of different things. Everything from using a chainsaw and tree-felling to leading guided walks and writing blogs.

“The science around climate change, biodiversity loss, overpopulation, pollution and consumption is compelling. We’re wrecking this planet and solutions based in nature are the only way out. But it’s more than that too. Who speaks for those with no voices? People can speak for themselves, but nature can’t, and that’s one of the reasons why a strong ranger presence in every country of the world is important – to protect and educate.

Her vision for the future is one of greater care: “I’d like to see a growing awareness of the natural world translate into an awareness of what’s actually on your doorstep and how to enjoy it without ruining it. I’d like to see lighting destructive fires and littering becoming as socially unacceptable as drink-driving, and far rarer than they are now. On the reserve, we’re hoping to upgrade the paths around the loch and reclaim some space for nature by making it clear where the paths are, so people don’t accidentally wander into sensitive bird-breeding areas. I’d like to continue to improve the wetland areas on the site with some carefully considered ditch-damming, which creates great habitat and contributes to carbon capture.”

Helen Rowe is a Countryside Ranger for Aberdeenshire Council, covering the Marr area.

She said: “Our team of seven Rangers and a Coordinator covers different areas throughout Aberdeenshire, helping people to enjoy, learn about and help care for our natural and cultural heritage. The job is varied – there are desk-bound days, and we’ve adapted to engage with people online a lot during lockdown, but usually we get out and about more, giving guided walks or at public events, and talk with all kinds of people, from locals to tourists, and over 50s groups to school pupils.

“We try to encourage people to give something back to nature – anything from simple ways to help garden wildlife, to practical volunteering, like planting native trees or recording wildlife. I have a special interest in moths and butterflies, so spend time surveying them, sharing my enthusiasm and getting others involved - this part of Scotland is important for certain threatened species.

"I’ve always loved nature, and I enjoy the variety of my job – the mix of working outdoors and inside, the opportunity to work alone but also in a team. It means a lot to communicate my passion for local biodiversity and heritage so that others might be inspired to make a difference too.

“I want to keep learning more about our natural and cultural heritage – there’s always more to discover and share. It’s rewarding to feel you’re making positive changes for both the environment and people - improving someone's mental health by helping them to connect with nature or sparking a child's interest in wildlife that may one day become their vocation too.”

Sally Mackenzie helps to restore freshwater habitats and species, as a Conservation Officer in the Cairngorms Nature Team, for the Cairngorms National Park Authority.

“There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a bit of on-the-ground habitat creation or restoration,” she explains. “It’s very satisfying to play a part in helping to restore wildlife habitat that also brings a multitude of other benefits for people, from helping to reduce flooding to providing somewhere to walk or watch wildlife. I love working with people and partnership working is a large part of this role.

“The impacts of climate change and the decline in many of our UK species are much more mainstream today than they were even five years ago. I was chatting about climate change, plastic pollution and fish populations with my friend’s 8-year-old a few days ago and the level of awareness and caring was fantastic!”

Looking ahead, she is keen to help achieve more restoration in the Dee catchment: “The partners bring a wealth of knowledge about the pressures on the river and the people and wildlife living alongside it. Bringing all this together really can bring benefits for everyone.”

Dr Susan Cooksley is a Freshwater Ecologist at the James Hutton Institute, and Manager of the Dee Catchment Partnership: “I’ve been privileged to call Scotland my place of work for over 20 years. Much of that time has involved studying the species I’m most passionate about - the freshwater pearl mussel. These fascinating animals tell us the condition of our rivers - if pearl mussel are thriving you have a river in tip-top condition. Sadly few rivers, even those that are apparently pristine, can support a viable mussel population, and although we’ve made great strides in improving our rivers, we still have a long way to go.

“Through my work with the Dee Catchment Partnership, I‘ve been able to help our partners progress our shared goal of restoring habitat and water quality throughout the Dee catchment. This involves managing river restoration projects from the headwaters to the harbour, and spreading the word through our outreach work, to inspire people to support and take part in our projects.”

Susan is ambitious for the catchment’s future: "Over the next few years, I’d love to see a re-wilded river system really beginning to develop, with large-scale, more holistic river restoration work taking place.”