Staff blog: Reflecting on a 'Year of Young People'

Schiehallion Conservation Officer Izzy Filor considers young people’s connections to nature and offers advice to get involved

Cat burton   tree planting at schiehallion 2018 detail

Scotland's 'Year of Young People' has shown just how engaged so many of our country’s younger generation are with conservation and the outdoors. The average age of an MP is 50, so it’s crucial that our governments listen to more youthful voices to steer the country in a positive way. After all, it’s us who will be bearing the brunt of policy decisions on climate change, pollution, energy and conservation in years to come.

Campaigns have often focussed on how to engage younger people with conservation, however my experiences over the past few months have shown just how engaged young people are – we just need opportunities to be listened to and to drive change.

I am currently working as a conservation ranger based at one of the Trust’s properties: East Schiehallion in Highland Perthshire. It’s notoriously difficult to gain paid experience within conservation, so I am incredibly lucky to have been afforded this training post aimed at early-career conservationists, funded through the ALA Green Trust.

There isn’t a normal day with my job – in the summer I’m normally found counting mountain ringlet butterflies (the UK’s only montane butterfly species), searching for water voles, doing breeding bird surveys and getting stuck in with ongoing footpath maintenance. Some days I’m involved with local work parties doing path repair, tree planting (pictured) or fence building.

In winter I’ve been tree planting in hail, snow and thunder! I feel like I’m constantly learning in my job, and I think the reality is that I’ll constantly be learning for my whole career ‑ there’s a huge amount of specialist knowledge of flora and fauna that a lifetime of learning probably isn’t enough time to take it all in.

Growing up, I was constantly being dragged out walking, especially in bad weather – it was just a matter of time before I would enjoy it! Today, I’m definitely the most adventurous in my family. On days when I’m not working, I’m normally found bikepacking, skiing or hill walking somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.

My work with the John Muir Trust has given me a much greater appreciation of smaller-scale nature. When I’m exploring the hillsides under my own steam, today I find myself tuning into bird calls, flora and to tree regeneration as a result of my work at Schiehallion.

It can feel pretty vulnerable being in a remote place or riding a bike by yourself, but I find it’s also these experiences that you also have the best memories from. I’ve definitely had a few moments I wouldn’t want to repeat – from wading through burns almost in spate with my bike on my shoulder to finding a guy sleeping (after a few too many drinks) in the middle of a road when cycling through rural Ireland at 2am – but these are now trips that I laugh about and which make other difficult situations feel easy by comparison.

It’s small adventures like these that help me to ‘reset’ – it’s easy to get bogged down by everyday life and being in the middle of nowhere with just a tent in your backpack or with your bike helps you forget about everything apart from basic survival!

Exploring the outdoors and wild places should be accessible to all young people. At the moment, transport is a big barrier to young people getting out of cities, however it’s easy to connect with nature at a local level wherever we live. Spending half an hour exploring your local greenspace or park can bring about an equal amount of appreciation of the natural world as spending a day in the Highlands.

We need schools and teachers to see the benefit of outdoor learning to young people so this can be a staple of our education system – it is great that in Scotland we have an entitlement for all pupils that includes outdoor learning and daily contact with nature through the Learning for Sustainability agenda. A greater connection to nature is linked to benefits to mental and physical health as well as a greater learning and appreciation of the places we live.

I’ve been really lucky to work with numerous other young people whilst working for the John Muir Trust and within Highland Perthshire there seem to be a lot of opportunities for young people to engage with nature. Having grown up in Edinburgh, it definitely feels like there are more opportunities for those already living in rural locations.

I’ve spent a few days working with Junior Rangers from a local high school, who spend 20 days over the year with different rangers in the area, coordinated by the Cairngorms National Park – they also take part in the John Muir Award. There’s also a nearby rural skills training course run by a local community group, Highland Perthshire Communities Land Trust. They offer training and hands-on experience to young people wanting to start a career in the rural environment sector, which was something that I was able to benefit from a couple of years ago.

For those who want to start a career in conservation, volunteering has got me a long way. More importantly, I think it’s really useful to get in touch with lots of local conservation organisations near to you – the wider your group of contacts who know you, means they can keep you up to date with events, more volunteering opportunities and jobs that come up. I’d also recommend applying for everything and anything that takes your fancy – enthusiasm goes a long way.

The Year of Young People has been a great tool for young people to show how engaged they already are with nature and environmental responsibility. Moving forward, we need to learn from its successes and ensure that this is not just a year, but a progressive movement to empower young people for the foreseeable future.

Find out more about how the John Muir Trust is helping inform the hot topic of young people’s nature engagement across the UK.

Photo credit Cat Burton