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Published: 22 Mar 2019

Field Notes: Applying PhD skills to practical projects

PhD student Vanessa Burton spent three months volunteering with our land team, based in our head office in Pitlochry

Vanessa Burton planting tree at HOSF

I've always wanted to work in an environmental NGO and the Trust in particular appealed to me because I love being out in wild places. I like that the Trust combines protecting and restoring these, together with increasingly working with people and communities.

I'd met Mike [Daniels, Head of Land Management at the John Muir Trust] through my research and approached him to see if a placement would work. I wanted a chance to apply the skills learnt during my PhD to practical projects, as well as gain new skills and experience and meet people working in an NGO. I also wanted to get outside into wild land and plant real trees instead of write about planting them.

I got heaps out of my placement! It's a cliché but the best thing was probably meeting great people and experiencing a different work environment. Other highlights included:

  • Planting (so many) trees on Schiehallion in all weathers, scouting for deer, and coming up with creative ways to fix fences!
  • Meeting all of the land team (and their dogs) at their annual gathering.
  • Running round Pitlochry at lunchtimes with mix and match combos of the wonderful Pitlochry staff.

While I was at the Trust, I looked at a decade of habitat monitoring data that the land team had collected at each of the Trust properties, and summarised what has changed in terms of tree seedling growth and heathland health. Hopefully this has helped to illustrate the positive effects that management for wild land can have but also that, despite great work by the Trust, more needs to be done in terms of deer management at a national level for real changes (such as natural regeneration of woodland at larger scales) to be able happen.

On Schiehallion, I helped Liz and Izzy plant a lot of trees as part of the Heart of Scotland Forest Partnership. I'm looking forward to going back and seeing a growing woodland, which will form part of a woodland network that will facilitate species movement across several different types of land holdings. It's a fantastic project which is putting into practice a lot of great ideas that I think should be more prevalent across Scotland - I'm glad to have had a small role in it!

The John Muir Trust is a top organisation to volunteer for. The staff are passionate about what they do, really friendly, and they are helped so much by volunteers giving up their time. If you want to help an organisation that is working to protect and restore wild landscapes, whilst also increasingly looking to work with people and communities to encourage sustainable relationships with the land, this is the place to come.

Photo shows Vanessa planting trees on East Schiehallion - part of the Heart of Scotland Forest Partnership.